What Does a Forensic Anthropologist Do? A Definitive Guide

Updated 6 August 2023

A forensic anthropologist is a scientist trained to identify human remains and interpret evidence to determine cause of death. They often assist law enforcement in forensic investigations where a natural disaster or crime resulted in death. Learning more about a forensic anthropologist's responsibilities can help you determine whether you'd like to pursue this role. In this article, we answer the question 'What does a forensic anthropologist do?' by describing their key responsibilities, listing the tools they need and characteristics they may have, exploring their work environment and sharing some similar positions.

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What does a forensic anthropologist do?

To answer 'What does a forensic anthropologist do?', it's necessary to examine their daily duties. A forensic anthropologist often helps recover human remains from crime scenes using archaeological techniques to prevent further damage. To study the remains, they clean the bones and use analytical techniques to discover the biological profile of the subject.

A forensic anthropologist may also analyse the type and extent of the deceased person's injuries. Using their findings, they may testify in court about the identity of the individual, the injuries evident from damage to the skeleton and the cause of death. Estimating time since death may also benefit those involved in solving the case.

Related: How to Become a Forensic Investigator (With Duties and Skills)

Common duties and responsibilities of a forensic anthropologist

A forensic anthropologist's job varies, depending on the cases they're involved in. Full-time forensic anthropologists typically spend most of their time in a laboratory. Part of their working day may take place out in the field or in courtrooms. Some of their common duties and responsibilities in these three locations include:

Locating the burial site

A forensic anthropologist's fieldwork may include locating and excavating buried remains. Locating the burial area typically involves a site visit to perform a careful study for signs of burial. A new burial site usually shows disturbances to the vegetation or soil. Heat-sensitive infrared cameras can locate items hidden below the surface of the earth that aren't visible from above and work well for finding new burials. Older burials may be located using metal probes, metal detectors and cadaver dogs.

Recovering human remains at a scene

Once a forensic anthropologist has located a burial site, they estimate the potential dimensions of the site and thoroughly examine the surface for any evidence. Using archaeologic tools, they remove the soil manually with great care. To unearth deeply buried remains, the initial digging is often carried out by industrial earth moving equipment. To recover small pieces from the soil, they use a technique called flotation.

Analysing the findings on-site

While still at the site, a forensic anthropologist can determine whether the material is bone (osseous) and whether it's of human or non-human origin. They determine the minimum number of individuals at a site. They record all findings meticulously and may oversee the packaging up of the remains for transportation to the lab for further investigation.

Laboratory investigations

At the laboratory, the forensic anthropologist describes the remains as they were found. They clean and prepare the bones for examination and lay them out in an anatomical position. They assess each set of human remains to provide information in these categories:

General physical description

To establish biological profiles, the forensic anthropologist compiles a general physical description that comprises four important facts about the deceased. These might include age at death and stature.

Individual identifiable features

In an attempt to identify the remains, the anthropologist looks for individual identifiable features. This is an important stage of analysis when assisting with disaster victim identification. Their examinations may include things such as:

  • Dental analysis: This refers to evidence of dental work such as fillings, crowns, dental implants and the arrangement and condition of the teeth.

  • DNA analysis: This can confirm the familial connection to relatives.

  • Medical implants: This refers to pins or plates from previous bone breaks or prosthetic joints.

  • Skeletal features: This refers to amputations, fractures and cancer lesions.

Evidence of the cause of death

The forensic anthropologist examines the bones for signs of trauma that may lead to the discovery of the cause of death. There are three categories of skeletal trauma:

  • Antemortem: The injuries sustained during life, usually with evidence of healing.

  • Perimortem: The injuries sustained close to the actual time of death, which could contribute to the cause of death.

  • Post mortem: The damage that occurs after death, usually caused by the environment or by animals.

Estimated time since death

Knowing the approximate time since death can assist with investigations by narrowing down the number of missing persons it could be or linking the remains to other unsolved crimes. To work out an estimation of the time since death, the preservation and condition of the remains are assessed, including the state of decay (taphonomy). Factors that influence the rate of decay are taken into account. For example, thick clothes can slow down the process of decay.

Presenting findings in court

Forensic anthropologists may be called to law courts as expert witnesses to testify about their findings. Part of their assessment involves evaluating if the remains are of sufficient medico-legal significance to be used as court evidence. While not every case they work on goes to court, they're obliged to adhere to strict protocols when handling, labelling and storing their findings, as the items could be called on as evidence. They complete reports with meticulous accuracy for the same reason.

Tools used by a forensic anthropologist

Being a forensic anthropologist takes good manual dexterity and technical ability to operate the tools that they use when doing their work. Part of the practical investigative training covers excavation methods and equipment. Some tools and processes used by forensic anthropologists include:

  • Common archaeology tools: such as shovels, trowels, knives and excavators to preserve remains from further damage

  • Boley gauges: for measuring the size of teeth

  • Spreading callipers: for measuring head breadth and length

  • X-rays, computer tomography and MRIs: that help to identify potential causes of death

  • Geographic information systems (GIS): to store all the coordinates and excavation site data

Related: What Does a Computer Forensic Analyst Do? (With Skills)

Characteristics and skills of a forensic anthropologist

The skills, abilities and inherent characteristics of a successful forensic anthropologist may include:

  • Critical thinking and quantitative reasoning: Enabling findings based on rational, sceptical and unbiased analysis.

  • Decision making and problem solving: Deciding on the best extraction and analysis methods for each situation.

  • Meticulous laboratory practices: Working with potential legal evidence requires careful attention when collecting, labelling and storing each item.

  • Keen observations skills: Attention to fine detail when assessing remains ensures the team doesn't overlook any signs.

  • Proficiency on a computer: Computer skills are important for capturing and storing data and writing reports.

  • Good interpersonal skills: Investigations usually require collaboration and cooperation with forensic dentists and pathologists who work together to provide information to law enforcement.

  • Communication skills, both written and oral: These give you the ability to convey highly technical information in simple language to non-scientists, including police investigators, colleagues, attorneys and jurors.

  • Time management and the ability to prioritise tasks: This allows you to work in a way that enables information to be available to meet court and legal deadlines.

  • Composure: Facing accident, crime and natural disaster scenes with self-control and focus is important.

Related: 12 Cognitive Skills Examples (With Steps to Develop Them)

Related helpful abilities and experience

Due to the complex responsibilities that a forensic anthropologist's job entails, experiences that help them perform their duties may include:

  • Working with law enforcement: Understanding police investigative protocols and procedures makes it simpler to cooperate with the law enforcement team during site visits.

  • Using laboratory equipment: Prior experience of using the equipment in a lab gives a forensic anthropology student a distinct advantage.

  • Having photography skills: Basic photography skills are helpful in capturing clear images of remains at the scene with markers for scale.

  • Understanding X-rays: Being able to use and read X-rays is helpful, as X-rays are a vital part of a forensic anthropologist's tools for analysis.

Related: Photographer Skills (How to Improve and Highlight Them)

A forensic anthropologist's work environment

Forensic anthropologists are frequently professors or researchers who offer consultation services to law enforcement agencies to perform forensic casework. They work mainly in classrooms, lecture halls, offices and laboratories.

Full-time forensic anthropologists may work at a medical examiner's office, coroner's office, in museums or at military facilities. When engaging in fieldwork, they may carry their investigation equipment through rough terrain or into hard-to-access areas, such as disaster areas.

Similar jobs to forensic anthropology

These jobs are similar to the work of a forensic anthropologist:

  • Anthropologist

  • Archaeologist

  • Forensic scientist

  • Forensic pathologist

  • Criminologist

  • Forensic psychologist

  • Cyber forensics investigator

  • Forensic analyst

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