Forensic Anthropology Steve Neiswender

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Forensic Anthropology

Steve Neiswender


Each week on Fox, and with reruns on TNT, we can follow the adventures of Doctor Temperance Brennan and Agent Seeley Booth in the crime drama, Bones. The remains of a deceased individual turn up. The FBI cannot identify the remains or cause of death of the individual. What are they to do? Turn to Doctor Brennan to save the day. Doctor Brennan and Agent Booth gallivant across the country trying to solve deaths and homicides. The show makes it all look very exciting and glamorous, full of adventure and intrigue at every turn. But is this a realistic depiction of forensic anthropology? In this essay, I will dive in to what constitutes forensic anthropology and what real forensic anthropologists do.

What is Forensic Anthropology

“Forensics is the science of crime investigation. Anthropology is the study of human beings (Libal, pg. 11).” Put the two of these elements together, and you have a science with which to identify deceased persons. Usually this is done through their dental and skeletal remains. Indeed, as in the television show Bones, forensic anthropologists may be called on to help law enforcement identify human remains in what may well be a homicide case. But forensic anthropology goes beyond being just a law enforcement tool.

Forensic anthropologists may be called upon not only to identify human remains, but also to help identify causes of death in ancient human remains. Many questions come in to play when human skeletal remain or remains are found. Some of these questions would involve identifying the gender and race of the decedent, determining the age of the decedent, and identifying any lethal injuries or illness that may have played a role the decedent’s death.

Identifying the Remains

The gender of an individual can be determined fairly easily if a pelvis is found. This is due to the fact that a female’s hips are wider than a male’s. The skull also can be a key indicator, as the skull of a male tends to be more robust than that of the female’s skull. But what if these bones are not present in the discovered remains? “Forensic anthropologists can make an educated guess about the sex of the decedent by measuring other bones and comparing them to known skeletons (Libal pg. 23).” What this means is that seeing as men are generally larger and more muscular than women, if remains are found that tend to be larger bones or that have “large ridges where muscles were once attached (Libal pg. 25), then based on averages, it would be a safe guess to state that the bones came from a male. The important thing to remember here is that this would be a calculated guess. The only sure way definitively identify the gender of the remains would be with either a skull or a pelvic bone.

The race of a decedent becomes a little trickier. However, race can be identified down to essentially to one of three races. Using the skull of the decedent, a forensic anthropologist can determine if an individual was black, white, or Asian. One may wonder how they can do this. Essentially, these three racial groups have unique skeletal features that help the forensic anthropologist to identify the decedent’s race. The Caucasians skull tends to be longer and more angled than others. Also, the face of the skull is flat, with no significant protrusions of note. The skull of Asians tends to have prominent cheekbones. The cranium for someone of Asian descent also is rounded. For a black person, the skull is more round and has a longer cranium than that of someone that is of Caucasian or Asian descent.

Identifying Injuries

Part of the job of a forensic anthropologist is to help find a cause of death in the remains of the decedent. The reason for this is that “[m]ost violent deaths leave marks on the victim’s bones (Libal pg. 67). A forensic anthropologist is trained and capable of identifying whether an injury occurred before death, at the time of death, or after death. This is done by looking to see what type of injury was sustained, the damage that was done, and discerning how much healing has already taken place. For example, in the event of a broken bone before the time of death, the skeletal remains will show signs of healing. If there are no signs of healing, then the injury either lead to or occurred in close proximity to the decedent’s passing. So what about bones that break after death? There is even a distinction between bones broken at while alive verses bones that are broken after a person is dead. “Living bone does not break leanly; instead it tears, twists, and splinters like a green branch . . . Dead bones break cleanly, like dry branches (libal pg. 69-70).”

Forensic anthropologists can also identify possible causes of death by injuries recorded in a decedent’s skeleton. Bullets leave a distinct mark on any bone that they strike, including the shattering of the bone or powder from the gunshot if fired close enough to the victim. Knives can leave markings that indicate the type of knife used in the attack on the decedent. Blunt objects, too, can leave an indelible imprint on the victim, showing an injury sufficient to cause death.

Some Interesting Forensic Anthropological Finds

Solving modern day crimes is fascinating and important, without a doubt. However, forensic anthropologists have helped put together stories of the past as well. King Phillip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, is one such story that we have gleaned information of through the work of a forensic anthropologist. The remains of King Phillip II were discovered in 1977. Despite the remains bearing no indications of the individual’s identity, the manner of burial, coupled with wounds to the skull of the decedent were sufficient for Richard Neave to identify the remains as belonging to the once Macedonian king. Neave was also able to use the skull, as well as historical accounts of an injury to King Phillip’s right eye, to exact a facial reconstruction of what King Phillip II of Macedonia looked like at the time of his death.

The Russian Tsar Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, is another face that we can now put to a name thanks to the work of a forensic anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov. One of the interesting things that was learned from the remains of Tsar Ivan IV was that rather than being healthy and slender as depicted in films, he was likely very obese, and his bones indicated that he suffered from arthritis.


While we can see that real life forensic anthropology may not be as exciting or adventurous as we see in television, it is clear that we can learn quite a bit from the science. We can see that a forensic anthropologist can help law enforcement to identify a victim as well as a possible cause of death. We also see that forensic anthropologists can put a face to the remains of our ancestors and other historical figures. We see that they can tell us what kind of life the individual may have lived. What kind of nutrition the individual had during their lifetime. They can tell us of pains and traumas that the decedent may have lived with. In short, Bones may embellish the story behind what a forensic anthropologist does. In fact, other than the aspect of Dr. Brennan being in harm’s way while doing her job function, Bones does give an accurate idea as to what a forensic anthropologist does.


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