Investigating the wide scale disasters or crime scenes is a daunting task. The amount of work that goes into attempting to deconstruct what actually happened is mind boggling. Often times the scene of a disaster or a crime does not readily provide an explanation of the events. In these cases, forensic anthropologists use their expertise to analyze bone fragments and other visible biological characteristics to provide a more accurate picture of the events leading up to the death of an individual as well as the actual cause of death.
Forensic anthropology is used in situations where more traditional methods have proved unsuccessful. It does not necessarily identify the victim, but it helps identify what happened behind the scenes, arguably the most important part of investigating a crime scene. Specifically, forensic anthropology is the most crucial aspect of investigation in situations where there has been any decomposition or disturbance to the body, especially in instances where there a large number of deaths due to some type of disaster.
Without forensic anthropology, normal investigative tactics would not be able to provide the whole picture to authorities. In instances like Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), forensic anthropology is absolutely imperative in identifying victims as it is the most important and reliable way to ascertain exactly what happened to the victim(s). While DNA testing may help identify a victim, it does not provide enough information to solve the crime in question. Forensic anthropologist can often provide enough information to explain the time of death, the cause of death and familial history of prior abuse.
While forensic anthropology played a crucial part in identifying victims of the Korean War in the 1950s (pre DNA testing), it was not recognized as a separate field by The American Academy of Forensic Sciences until a decade later. While it was utilized throughout the last half of the 20th century, forensic anthropology did not fully come into play until the 21st century when technological advances made forensic anthropological findings more valid and able to hold up in a court of law. Starting in the late 1990s, forensic anthropology had earned a greater presence in forensics. As science advanced, so did the validity of forensic anthropology. This allowed forensic anthropologists to make accurate assertions in a crime scene based solely on the examination of human skeletal remains. Forensic anthropology has long been debated on whether or not its broad underlying theories behind are applicable in a legal setting. According to Michael Brian Schiffer, theories behind forensic anthropology “can be characterized as high‐level, middle‐range, and low‐level and vary in usage according to the contextual circumstances of the forensic scene and the forensic questions being asked” (Boyd and Boyd, 1). This allows for theories behind anthropology to be sub sectioned, therefore increasing the specificness of the theories and improving the reliability or imposing such theories on a legal investigation. High-level theory is a broad and overarching theory including contents of middle and low-range theory, consisting of identifying the person’s biological profile and the events that lead up to the investigation of the subject. In order to do this, we rely on “our understanding of the evolutionary forces affecting human variation, which, in turn, include theoretical bases for the biological processes of skeletal growth, development, degeneration, and microevolutionary (secular) change” (Boyd and Boyd, 2). Similar to high-level theory, middle-range theory is condensed into specifics, with a goal to better connect the vague information provided in an investigation to events that lead up to the crime. Their goal is to “link material remains, their context, recovery, and interpretation to human behavior and ultimately to the explanation of that behavior” (Boyd and Boyd, 2). In doing this, a connection between evidence and motive is created, providing a reliable assertion of what happened in the crime and can be accepted in a legal environment. Finally, the low-level theory “encompasses the rationale and explanations behind the use of specific recovery and analytical methods in archaeology (or forensics) and the inferential processes affecting the interpretation of recovered data” (Boyd and Boyd, 3). In essence, low-level theory provides a certain rationale for using theories behind forensic anthropology in specifics. With Schiffer’s in depth analysis of anthropological theory, the general reliability of using forensic anthropology is increased as it dives into the specifics regarding the background of which theories are imposed on an investigation. While previously the main problem with forensic anthropology was justifying using broad theory to interpret and provide standpoints on legal investigations, the increase of specificity in turn increases reliability, therefore increasing usability at a legal standpoint.
Over the past 15 years, the role forensic anthropologists have in Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) has become crucial. Police, medical examiners and coroners have begun to realize that the expertise of forensic anthropologists can provide crucial information in a DVI situation while reducing the project’s cost and duration (Mundorff, 2). In taking on this role in DVI, forensic anthropologists are able to give opinions on what happened in the crime scene, and to use those assertions in a legal standpoint. The importance of a forensic anthropologist in DVI situations is crucial as their involvement at the onset insures that human remains are not altered or disrupted in any way. By analyzing these remains, they use ”extensive field experience in searching for, mapping, and recovering human remains. These skills make forensic anthropologists valuable in the initial assessment of any disaster scene. They can help assess the number and condition of remains, which in turn can help determine the scope of the recovery effort” (Mundorff, 4). With experience in mapping and recovering human remains, forensic anthropologists are able to determine things like how big the crime scene actually is, or how many people there were and where exactly the evidence was found in a timely manner. This proves to be imperative in identifying the victims and background of a disaster. For example, during 9/11, there were many skeletal remains scattered at the crime scene, with the untrained eye not able to readily determine the human from the animal remains. Due to the fact there were many restaurants in the area, the violent destruction of the Twin Towers mixed the remains. During this time forensic anthropologists “were able to recognize and discard non human remains onsite before these materials were processed through the mortuary system” (Mundorff, 5). By using their knowledge of anthropology, they were able to examine all bones found at the scene and separated those of human descent from those of non-human descent. In a time of chaos in a disaster, anthropologists are able to save valuable time and money by expediting the investigative process of the disaster. Similarly, during 9/11 forensic anthropologists were able to reattach broken bones and body parts back together to further expedite the victim identification process. In a disaster like 9/11, “Remains with disaster-induced commingling may initially appear to belong to a single individual, but closer examination reveals small bone fragments of other individuals embedded within the tissue” (Mundorff, 6). Forensic anthropologists are able to reduce the amount of commingling in a disaster investigation. By separating individuals remains prior to creating a case for the investigation, you prevent finding out about commingling after the fact; which would create new cases for each instance of commingling (Mundorff, 6). This allows the investigation to save time and money and allocate their investigative resources efficiently. Forensic anthropologists not only improve the allocation of resources in DVI situations, but they also help improve quality control. In reconciliation, the investigative team looks over all of the evidence they have built up for the disaster, enabling them to create a more accurate view on what actually happened. Often, they find mistakes in this process, forcing them to go back to the evidence and find out what they did wrong in the separation of biological evidence. The potential benefits of a forensic anthropologists findings in reconciliation have been established in many recent events requiring DVI, “DVI operations have benefited from instituting a final anthropological review particularly following, but certainly not limited to, events resulting in compromised remains. This procedure verifies that the actual physical remains being identified match the documented biological profile of the victim being identified” (Mundorff, 8). By incorporating forensic anthropology in DVI, the accuracy of the report is increased as it adds an extra level of quality control, ensuring the body parts belong to the correct person. The process of this procedure by a forensic anthropologist includes “reviewing the physical remains, in conjunction with the victim’s biological profile, other documented ante mortem information, and a list of remains already identified to the individual” (Mundorff, 8). This allows the forensic anthropologist to compare and contrast remains with the persons profile, decreasing the chance of evidence commingling. Overall, the utilization of forensic anthropologists in DVI situations has now provided levels of efficiency and accuracy in crime and disaster investigations that has never before been seen.
The role of forensic anthropologists was vital to the investigation of the wild fires that ravaged Victoria, Australia in 2009. With damage and casualties spread over one million acres, the need for forensic anthropologists was inevitable. The fire had cleared everything in its path, including humans and animals. As many of the remains found had been charred to the point where the species of the subject was unknown, the need for an anthropologist at the scene was necessary to correctly identify and derive assertions based off evidence (Blau and Briggs, 2). As the fire covered an immensely large area, it was necessary to create numerous investigations so the evidence compiled from the over one million acres of the disaster scene logistically couldn’t be looked at by a single team. On each of the teams was a forensic anthropologist, whose contribution was supposed to “locate and identify in a timely manner the most relevant anatomical landmarks that may provide information about ancestry, sex, age, and stature” (Blau and Briggs, 4). Specifically, a team was set to investigate a house that was in the bush fire, containing 9 individuals. The difference between this investigation and the average investigation that would take place in your local neighborhood was that there was nearly no records of DNA from victims involved. This means that it is the anthropologists job to identify the humans, purely based off bones and other biological evidence provided at the scene. At first, the team did not know what they were walking in to, they understood there would be deaths but not to this extent. The house ended up containing one young juvenile, 4 older juveniles, 4 adults, and canines (Blau and Briggs, 5). The forensic anthropologist was able to identify things like the general age and gender of the subject by analyzing the bones found at the scene. For example, in order to identify the young juvenile, the forensic anthropologist was able to identify several small vertebrae from the individual, “Although the remains were significantly commingled it was possible to distinguish several child lumbar vertebrae on evidence of markings (in the form of radiating lines) of the annular epiphyses” (Blau and Briggs, 5). With the forensic anthropologists knowledge on bone structure and how different types of disaster can affect bones, they were able to identify the genders and ages of the individuals. While doing this, they successfully separated each person’s or species’ biological material from others, without the help of DNA testing. Forensic anthropologist’s role in the Victorian Bushfire Investigations sheds light on how important they are to a DVI team, as they were crucial in identifying different victims in the fire.
Arguably the most important part of forensics is creating an accurate scope of the situation; identifying suspects, motives, weapons, etc. In the past investigators have found it to be challenging to efficiently identify remains and compare them to a biological profile. With a forensic anthropologist, they can use their knowledge to evaluate the subject and come to reliable conclusions that other investigators cant. In DVI investigations specifically, a forensic anthropologist can be crucial not only to the success of an investigation but also to the efficiency of the investigation because of the inevitable decrease in both cost and duration. The use of scene mapping techniques are a reliable source to sort bones or other biological material at the scene. In situations when there has been any decomposition or disturbance of the body, forensic anthropologists are imperative as they can provide information about the crime scene and cause of death in an accurate, timely and cost efficient manner that no other means of investigation can.