Forensic anthropology applies the science of physical or biological anthropology to the legal process. Anthropology is the study of humans, and in this forensic discipline physical or biological anthropologists focus their studies on the human body as it relates to explaining the circumstances of an accident or solving a crime – often homicide.
Forensic anthropology involves applying anthropological research and techniques to medicolegal issues. There are three subsections within the field of forensic anthropology, including:
- Forensic Osteology (the study of the skeleton)
- Forensic Archeology (involves the controlled collection of human remains)
- Forensic Taphonomy (involves the study of changes to the body after death, including decomposition and environmental modification)
Forensic anthropologists analyze human remains, typically in criminal investigations. Their study of human remains aids in the detection of crime by working to assess the age, sex, stature, ancestry and unique features of a skeleton, which may include documenting trauma to the skeleton and its postmortem interval.
Forensic anthropologists use a number of techniques when studying skeletal remains, including:
- Clay or graphic facial reproduction
- Scanning electron microscopy
- Radiographic techniques
- Photo or video superimposition techniques
- Thin-sectioning techniques of bone histology
- The casting of skeletal materials
- Preservation of skeletal materials using commercial preservatives
- Rehydration and preservation of mummified or decayed soft tissues
The job duties of forensic anthropologists include:
- Providing consultative and advisory services to forensic pathologists and coroners
- Traveling to the crime scene and producing reports detailing scene observation and recovery methodology
- Follow a clear protocol for collecting data
- Assisting in the coordination of a fatality response plan during a disaster situation involving victim identification
- Performing peer reviews of anthropological findings conducted by local specialists
Where Do Forensic Anthropologists Work?
Forensic anthropologists most often work alongside forensic pathologists, homicide investigators, and odontologists (forensic dentists). They may be employed on a full-time basis, particularly for the U.S. government and the military, although the majority of forensic anthropologists teach at universities and work in museums, choosing instead to serve as consultants.
What Education Do Forensic Anthropologists Receive?
The most common educational background for forensic anthropologists is a Ph.D. in physical anthropology, with graduate coursework focused on osteology and forensics.
Graduate coursework often includes:
- Human anatomy
- Gross dissection
- Probability, statistics, and quantitative analysis
Their doctoral work often allows them to establish expertise in pathology, human osteology, skeleton variation, and biomechanics, while their practical training, usually under a Board-certified forensic anthropologist, provides valuable experience in:
- Human identification methods
- Analysis and inventory of human skeletal material
- Evidence collection
- Crime scene analysis
- Archeological methods
- Excavation of archeological and forensic human burials
Most forensic anthropologists, during their Ph.D. program, perform extensive research, record the research through papers and publications in the field, conduct lectures, and participate in training seminars in forensics.
How Do Forensic Anthropologists Achieve Recognition in Their Profession?
Upon the completion of a Ph.D. in physical anthropology and working in the field for a number of years, both as an apprentice and then as an independent forensic anthropologist, many forensic anthropologists pursue certification through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.
Candidates for certification through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology must apply to take the rigorous examination covering both theory and practice, which is held every year at the annual AAFS meeting. After applying to take the examination, the Vice President will ensure minimum qualifications have been met and will notify the candidates of the date, time and location of the exam. Individuals who pass the AAFS certification exam will receive the title of Diplomate with the AAFS.
Forensic anthropologists may also achieve professional recognition through membership in the Physical Anthropology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
What are the Salary Expectations for Forensic Anthropologists?
Many forensic anthropologists are paid on a lump-sum basis when engaged in contract work, although a recent job posting for a forensic anthropologist reveals a weekly salary of $1,339 to $1,648, or on an annual basis, $64,272 to $79,104.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for anthropologists was $54,420 in May 2012, with the top 10 percent earning more than $91,140. The BLS also reported that anthropologists employed through the federal government earned the highest average annual salary at $74,040 during the same period.
The top-paying states for anthropologists, as of May 2012, included:
- District of Columbia: $91,180
- Massachusetts: $75,260
- Hawaii: $73,100
- Alaska: $71,220
- Arkansas: $69,710
The states with the highest concentration of anthropology jobs during the same time were:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota