What Is a Forensic Anthropologist?
The word "forensic" means pertaining to the law and anthropology is the study of humans. A forensic anthropologist is a scientist who assists law enforcement officials in identifying human remains, particularly bones. Forensic anthropologists can also use their knowledge of human osteology (bones) and anatomy to date remains, to identify trauma, and to perform forensic facial reconstruction.
Competition for jobs in forensic anthropology is high, and most forensic anthropologists hold at least a Master's degree in the field. Many specialize in a particular area of forensic anthropology such as facial reconstruction, osteology, trauma identification or working with heavily decomposed remains.
Where Do Forensic Anthropologists Work?
Few forensic anthropologists work full time on legal cases. The vast majority of them are employed by academic and research institutions in a teaching or research capacity and work on legal cases on a consult basis. However, there are some agencies that hire full-time forensic anthropologists, including large medical examiner's offices and federal/military forensic units.
Examining Remains to Determine Identity and Trauma
When working on a legal case, a typical day for a forensic anthropologist will consist of varied tasks. First, before the remains are examined, the scientist will familiarize himself with the known facts of the case. Because forensic anthropologists generally do not go to the crime scene, they rely on reports from law enforcement personnel regarding the conditions that the human remains were found in. Dependent upon the particular circumstances of the case, a forensic anthropologist may be asked to help identify the individual by age, race, sex or other characteristics, and to identify trauma. He may also take samples for DNA testing, which can help further in identification. The forensic anthropologist will carefully measure the bones and look for and record any distinguishing characteristics. If any signs of disease or other unusual conditions are present, these will be noted. Forensic anthropologists exam any trauma such as cracks, breaks or chips in bones to ascertain whether these injuries occurred prior to death or are a result of exposure to elements or animals postmortem.
The anthropologist presents his findings to law enforcement, and may be asked to appear in court as an expert witness.