Imagine a scenario where a decomposed, mostly skeletonized body is found under some bushes along a remote road.  Large bones are clearly present and what appears to be a human skull can be observed under some leaves.  Tattered clothing is located in close proximity.  It is this type of situation where a forensic anthropologist would likely be called to assist.  The skills of a forensic anthropologist will be critical in the recovery and documentation of the skeletal remains and associated evidence at the scene as well as in the subsequent laboratory analysis of the bones to identify the person and determine how they died.  With expertise in archaeological methods and an extensive background in human osteology (the study of the human skeleton), a forensic anthropologist can help solve even the most challenging cases.

Scope of Work

Recovery of skeletal remains from a crime scene.

 “Anthropology” is a very broad field that includes many sub-disciplines such as cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and physical (biological) anthropology.  Most commonly, forensic anthropologists specialize in physical anthropology and archaeology.  It is from physical anthropology that a forensic anthropologist learns the skills of human osteology and interpretation of the human skeleton.  It is from training in archaeology that a forensic anthropologist learns the proper methods of excavation and mapping to apply during the recovery of buried or scattered human remains.

Meticulous scene recovery procedures will ensure that all evidence and remains are properly collected and that the spatial relationships between them are documented.  Scene recoveries can include cases such as a skeleton scattered on the surface, buried remains, fire scenes, and mass fatality incidents such as plane crashes or explosions.

Through the study of the skeleton, forensic anthropologists attempt to reconstruct as much as possible about a person’s life and death.  Laboratory analysis can develop the “biological profile” of the person (including whether they are male or female, their age at death, ancestry, and living height) based on specific features observed on their bones.  Components of the biological profile are critical to the identification process.  In addition, previous skeletal pathologies (such as healed broken bones), diseases, and other skeletal features can help provide further information about an individual’s life and help identify them.  Every piece of information potentially narrows the pool of missing individuals who could be a match to the remains.  Skeletal analysis will also reveal clues on the bones that could suggest how the person died, such as cut marks from a knife and fractures resulting from gunshot or blunt force trauma.  The stage of body decomposition, in combination with information about environmental conditions, can help estimate how long the individual has been dead.

Laboratory analysis of human skeletal remains.

Education and Training

Forensic anthropologists usually earn a PhD in anthropology with an emphasis on the study of human osteology and anatomy.  Although the course of study will vary, each forensic anthropologist is broadly trained in physical or biological anthropology with an emphasis in skeletal biology.  Archaeology is also an important component and valuable experience is gained from attending archaeological field schools and excavating actual sites.  Whether the archaeological excavations are ancient or modern, the student gains an understanding of excavation methods and site formation processes through “hands-on” experience.

The American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) was created for the purpose of certifying experts in the field of forensic anthropology.  For board certification, it is necessary to demonstrate proficiency in all aspects of forensic anthropology.  This is accomplished through training, case analysis, and rigorous examinations.  Requirements for certification may be found at the ABFA website (

Career Opportunities

Forensic anthropologists work in various organizations.  Today, many forensic anthropologists are university professors who perform casework on a part-time basis by consulting for local medical examiner/coroner offices.  Some large medical examiner offices employ full-time forensic anthropologists on staff.  Other forensic anthropologists work for human rights organizations and federal government agencies (e.g., FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense).  It is not uncommon for forensic anthropologists to also serve additional roles such as medicolegal death investigators or identification specialists.  Full-time work in forensic anthropology is limited and positions are typically very competitive.

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