Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists analyze human remains to learn about their lives and deaths. 

Anthropologists study humans, and forensic anthropologists study dead humans. Upon the discovery of human remains (often skeletons), a forensic anthropologist may be called in to figure out who the deceased might have been, the cause of their death, and the conditions surrounding it. This sort of information can be the foundation of a homicide case or hold the key to understanding an ancient burial.

  • Forensic Anthropology work may include...
  • Recovering a skeleton from the site of discovery
  • Examining remains to see if they are human or nonhuman
  • Helping to identify deceased persons based on skeletal characteristics
  • Developing biological profiles of the deceased
  • Determining the cause of death from skeletal evidence
  • Reporting scientific findings to investigators

Forensic anthropologists may work with local law enforcement, with the government or military, or with museums, universities, and other institutions that conduct research. Typically, the role of a forensic anthropologist in a legal setting is to construct a profile of identifying characteristics such as height, age, sex, build, and ancestry, which can then be applied to missing persons to find a potential match. A forensics team investigating skeletal remains might employ X-rays, DNA analyses, or dental record comparisons in order to find evidence that may not be visible.

Still, an experienced forensic anthropologist can learn a lot from looking at a pile of bones! Features ranging from bone diseases to blunt force trauma are visible to the trained eye, and clues in the skeletal structure can reveal whether injuries occurred before or after the subject's death. All these pieces of information can help investigators make a timeline of the incident, which is essential.

Not all forensic anthropologists work exclusively with skeletons; while forensic osteology makes up much of the field, there are also those who specialize in forensic archaeology or forensic taphonomy. The archaeological component mostly consists of collecting remains from excavation sites in ways that do not disrupt the integrity of either, while the latter is more involved with environmental factors that affect decomposition. Specialists may be called in to an investigation to answer further questions not revealed by a skeletal study, but more often they can be found working with research institutions on historical projects.

This is a field that almost always requires an advanced degree such as a PhD in physical anthropology. An aspiring forensic anthropologist will have at least a Bachelors degree with a pre-med focus, since the job relies on knowledge of skeletal anatomy and requires a lot of specific skills. It's possible to enter the field with a Masters degree and a certification like the one offered by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

With most careers in forensics, it helps not to be squeamish - this job in particular involves working with dead bodies in varying states of decay. If you're comfortable examining the deceased and want to use your expertise to unravel skeletal mysteries, forensic anthropology could be a rewarding path!