SUBDISCIPLINES: Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology

by Greg Newall

March 2, 2007

Forensic anthropology

Forensic Anthropology in Anthropology

History and Practice of Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology in the United States and Europe




Forensic anthropology


Forensic anthropology is defined as the application of physical (biological) anthropology to the legal processes.  More specifically, forensic anthropologists are anthropologists with a great deal of training in anatomy and osteology (skeletal biology) who work with other specialists such as osteologists, forensic pathologists and homicide investigators to help discover and examine human bone remains and subsequently suggest multiple features of the decedent, such as sex, gender, stature, age, and even the circumstances of death (ABFA website 2007).  This information can be used in trials and other proceedings, and forensic anthropologists may serve as expert witnesses.  In addition to local crime scene investigations, recent work in forensic anthropology has involved fieldwork in sites of genocidal war and human rights violations, as well as application of anatomical knowledge to the identification of living criminals and victims (Subirana et al 2005, Cattaneo 2006).  Thus it appears that the field of forensic anthropology is a practice of applied biological anthropology and is multidisciplinary with the incorporation of multiple academic and professional interests that works on a local and international level.

Forensic Anthropology in Anthropology

Assuming the four-fields approach of anthropology presented by Barnard (2000), forensic anthropology is an applied subfield of biological anthropology. Traditionally it has had exclusive focus on osteological analyses of characteristics of human bone remains, whereas its parent field may examine evolution, adaptation, genetics, and biodiversity of not only humans, but of all primates. Although forensic anthropology is traditionally in the business of human bones, recent research has extended analysis to characteristics of living suspects, criminals, and victims.  Both approaches still apply methods of anatomy and osteology to the forensic sciences.

As for the relationship of forensic anthropology to anthropology in general, it appears well-situated within the realm of physical anthropology, with its application of methods of osteological analysis by these osteological remains.   It is an applied yet interdisciplinary field that incorporates methods of osteology and biological anthropology for the benefit of medicolegal procedures. 

History and Practice of Forensic Anthropology

Two events are considered to be important in the formation of forensic anthropology as a subdiscipline.  The first was the establishment of a physical anthropology section by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1972 (Stewart 1979), and the second was the formation of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology in 1979.  Following these events, physical anthropologists applying osteological methods to forensic sciences would adopt a new name, forensic anthropologists.   However, the practice defined by the definition, as the application of physical anthropology to legal matters, dates back several years.  One isolated case is the murder of Harvard professor George Parkman in 1849 was able to be solved due to the identification of his bones (Joyce and Stover 1992). 

One of the more notable contributions to forensic anthropology occurred in the late 19th century by Harvard anatomy professor Thomas Dwight.  Professor Dwight published The Identification of the Human Skeleton, a Medicolegal Study in 1878, and in this book, he noted the gender and stature characteristics of humans were determinable by examination of the bones themselves (Thomas, 2003).  Perhaps the application of this osteological method to forensics was first described by Wilton M. Krogman in 1939, with the Guide to the identification of human skeletal material.  This was published in an FBI guide and described the methods and procedure of the identification of human skeletal remains in legal and military domains.  Subsequent work at the Smithsonian Institute by Krogman and a colleague, Thomas Stewart, involved the forensic application of physical anthropological methods.  One example is assessment of the Korean War dead (Nafte 2000: 25).  This was some of the first post-war work conducted in forensic anthropology.  T. Dale Stewart and colleagues worked in the Kokura exercise (Joyce and Stover 1992:80) which provided advances in forensic sciences, namely with the determination of age at the time of death based on the characteristics of bones.  This type of information undoubtedly helped in the identification of the decedents.  This type of work continued through the following decades and helped establish the physical anthropology section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1972, as well as the formation of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology in 1979.

Recent work by forensic anthropologists has continued fieldwork in places where war crimes and genocide have resulted in the disappearance of the dead.  These situations can involve issues of human rights, for with the undue death of thousands in genocidal conflicts, the government or other officials may be to blame.  Thomas (2003: 179) notes “human rights exhumations not only provide the evidence against the nation or officials responsible for the crimes, but, more importantly, they bring closure and peace to families tortured by uncertainty.”

The desire for resolution of human rights violations has allowed forensic anthropologists to travel abroad, perform fieldwork and analysis, and subsequently testify in local and foreign courts of law (Nafte 2000) that address human rights issues.  Clyde Snow is a noted forensic anthropologist who worked in Argentina to help identify the remains of those ‘disappeared’ persons due to the Dirty War military dictatorship of 1976-1983 (Snow and Bihurriet 1992).  During this seven-year period, thousands of Argentines were kidnapped and murdered in inhumane ways.  The bodies of the decedents were often placed in mass graves.  As a result of Dr. Snow’s efforts, a great deal of forensic anthropological work began and continues in Argentina, performed principally by the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF ).  This organization, established in 1984, works to apply forensic science in the exhumation and identification of the remains of victims of the Dirty War and in other countries as well, and subsequently reports to local courts and international tribunals on human rights violations.

Similar work has been conducted in Guatemala following forty years of civil war that left thousands dead, as well as about 45,000 missing (Thomas 2000:183).  This case is another of government-sponsored repression and torture.  There were consistent conflicts between different political factions and the military, which produced a great deal of violence and the deaths of thousands.  Kathy Reichs is one notable forensic anthropologist who has worked in Guatemala, and her efforts, as well as those of others, led to the formation of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG ) in 1992.  The focus of this group is similar to that of EAAF.  The application of forensic sciences in the identification of human remains allows for the anthropologists to ascertain identity of the decedents as well as the circumstances of death, and to present the information in international courts of law. It also allows families of victims to receive information on the status of their missing and deceased relatives.  Some forensic anthropology groups, including FAFG and EQUITAS , an organization based in Colombia, actually provide counseling and psychological assistance to the families of the victims.        


In addition to the contributions of Snow and Reichs in Argentina and Guatemala. there are a handful of other currently practicing forensic anthropologists that have conducted fieldwork in areas of genocidal conflict.  These include Dr. Karen Burns of the University of Georgia, who has conducted fieldwork on genocide victims in Iraqi Kurdistan and Dr. Sue Black of the University of Dundee, who has worked in Kosovo with the British Forensics Team. 

This new kind of work is much different from the original identification of bones and osteology, as well as from helping with local crimes such as the Harvard professor’s murder.  It brings forensic anthropologists to the international realm, and also involves them in highly sensitive matters of cultural history.  The focus of forensic anthropology is the application of forensic sciences to the identification of decedents, in order to determine circumstances of death.  Traditionally, forensic anthropologists were osteologists who helped solve crimes committed within communities, on a seemingly local scale.  However, recent developments have brought forensic anthropologists away from working on only local crimes, and into the international realm, as investigators of human rights victims and of genocidal conflicts.  They work with governments and international courts to help solve these crimes against humanity, to help punish the perpetrators of such crimes, to provide and collect information about victims of cultures and communities damaged by such crimes for the courts and for the families of the victims. 

Forensic Anthropology in the United States and Europe

Currently, several universities offer programs and or training in forensic anthropology and forensic sciences. These include the University of North Carolina-Wilimington , California State University-Chico and -Los Angeles , and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville .  Notable organizations include the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.  There is also the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, a site dedicated to the analysis of forensic anthropological change and research.    In Europe, one organization is the Forensic Anthropology Society of Europe and the related Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology (Laboratorio di Antropologia ed Odontologia Forense (Milano, Italy).


American Board of Forensic Anthropology.  2007.  Internet website.                                                       Visited 20 Feb 2007.

Barnard, A.  2000.  History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.


Cattaneo, C.  2006.  Forensic anthropology: developments of a classical discipline in the new                        millennium.  Forensic Science International 165, 2-3, 185–193

Dwight, T.  1878.  The Identification of the Human Skeleton, a Medicolegal Study.  Boston:                          Massachusetts Medical Society.

Joyce, C. and Stover, E.  1992.  The Stories Bones Tell: Witnesses from the Grave.  New York:                   Ballantine Books.

Krogman, W.  1939.  A guide to the identification of human skeletal material.  FBI Law                                       Enforcement Bulletin 8(8): 3-31.

Nafte, M.  2000.  Flesh and Bone.  An Introduction to Forensic Anthropology.  Durham, NC:


Carolina Academic Press.


Reichs, K.  2007.  Personal website.,  Site visited                          

 28 Feb 2007.


Subirana, M., Gates, J.I., Jordana, X., García, C., Malgosa, A.  2005.  Importancia del estudio                       

antropológico forense para la calificación jurídica de una muerte violenta.  Importance of      


anthropological forensic study to the juridical qualification of a violent death.                  


Cuadernos de Medicina Forense 42, 293-305.


Snow, C. and Bihurriet, M.  1992.  An epidemiology of homicide: ningún nombre burials in the


province of Buenos Aires from 1970 to 1984.  In Human Rights and Statistics: Getting


the Record Straight, T.B. Jabine, and R.P. Claude, 328-364.  Philadelphia: University of


Pennsylvania Press.


Stewart, T.  1979.  Essentials of Forensic Anthropology.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.


Thomas, P.  2003.  Forensic Anthropology: The Growing Science of Talking Bones.  New York:               

 Facts on File.


Endnotes: Websites of forensic anthropologists, departments, and organizations

Website for the AAFS:

Website for the ABFA:

EAAF website:

Kathy Reichs website:

FAFG website:

EQUITAS website:

Karen Burns website:

Sue Black’s website:

UNC Wilmington/ Prof. Albert:

CSU Chico:

CSU Los Angeles:

UTK – Forensic Anthropology:\

Forensic Anthropology Society of Europe:


Richard Wilk's Home Page | Theory Main Webpage




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