In this essay, the topic of focus will be forensic anthropology. The main question is what is anthropology? Well to put it simply it is the study of bones, although there is a lot more to it than that. Forensic anthropologists use what they know about bones to find out a wide variety of things from recovering DNA to finding out the gender, race, age, height, and circumstances surrounding a person’s death.
It is said that the origin of forensic anthropology came from a murder case back in 1849.
Dr. George Parkman was a doctor who donated the land on which Harvard medical school was built. However, Parkman was murdered in the medical school by chemistry professor John Webster who allegedly borrowed money from Parkman then murdered him to evade paying back the money he owed. It was reported that Webster mutilated the body and put some parts in the anatomy laboratory, some in a septic tank, and charred the head in the furnace.
Anatomy professors Holmes and Wyman were called in to assist in the investigation. Together they managed to gather enough information to suggest that the skeleton was similar to the description of Dr. George Parkman. John Webster was eventually convicted of murder when the teeth found in the furnace matched a mold of Parkman’s teeth that his dentist had used to make his dentures. So how do we get information from bones to identify someone?
Firstly, anthropologists are more recently examining the ethnicity of the remains before looking into anything else.
Ancestry can play a role in making certain characteristics harder to identify without knowing the ethnicity. An example used is that ‘males of Asian ancestry often have more feminine-looking skulls than those of European descent’ so if the ethnicity wasn’t known this could easily be mistaken for female remains. Knowing the ancestry can help to find the sex, age, and height to make an identification of remains.
Next, find out the gender. Identification of gender can only be made if the male or female has reached puberty. The most common way used is through looking at the pelvis. A female’s pelvis is wider than a male’s because it is essential for childbirth. Measurements could be taken to give a more accurate result; however, a professional anthropologist can usually tell through visual inspection as there are also six other parts of the pelvis that can give indicators that the remains are female. Another way to tell gender is through the skull. A male skull will have a square jaw and a more predominant brow ridge, whereas a female skull is slender and smooth.
The gender typically needs to be known because although a rough height estimate can be made from using the humerus (the humerus length x5 will give you a rough height of the person) you can’t tell gender through height as it can once again vary through different ethnicities. Data is written as a probability (75% probability the remains are male) or can be written as a range (height is between 5 foot 4 inches and 5 foot 7 inches). Technology has come a long way and is now being used more often to increase the accuracy of the measurements, such as 3D digitizers. This is a machine connected to a computer and it uses an electronic pen applied to certain points on the surface of the skeleton to develop a 3D image of the object on the computer. It can also be useful if parts of the bones or skeleton are missing for example part of a skull. If the right side of the skull is missing the technology can be used to fill in the blanks by using the left side.
When it comes to recovering the remains, there are 4 main steps. Location, mapping, excavation, and collecting. Location refers to finding the remains and finding out if there is just a single person there or multiple remains. Also, they need to ask the questions; can they be seen on the surface? are they are buried? did an informant lead police to the remains? or does a search needs to be carried out? Mapping includes marking out the placement of the remains to a permanent structure (e.g. a tree or a building), recording the placement on a larger map and taking note of any materials that would be needed to help in the excavation of the bones. If the remains are buried the excavation must following the methods of archaeology! Lastly using correct procedures, the remains must be collected and properly packed so that they can be taken to a laboratory for further examination. Though there are a few issues where forensic anthropologists are not involved in recovering remains, this is not due to their lack of interest but more down to their lack of opportunity to perform these tasks. Police, medical examiners, and coroners will often not contact anthropologists when recovering partial or fully skeletonized bodies. The bones are simply put into a container and brought to the anthropologists for analysis. Unfortunately, many don’t follow the correct archaeology steps to recover the bones.
Therefore, bones from multiple individuals end up mixed and remain are not fully recovered with bones missing (usually from hands and feet) and other errors can make an anthropologist’s job more difficult, which can then result in loss of information. Given this, anthropologist tries to work closely with law enforcement so the correct training can be given and they know that a specialist should be called when human remains are discovered, as it is a complex process, to ensure that they can gather as much information from the remains as possible. The more of the remains that are found makes it more likely that the specialist can establish the cause of death as well as the identification. When an informant leads investigators to an area that they think the body is in, they may not always know the exact location so a search may be organized to do a sweep of the area. The first step is to gather the right quantity of searchers for the area that needs to be covered. The searchers look for any indication of previous human interference including soil that has been disturbed or twigs that have been broken from being stood on. They would also be looking for bones on the surface of the ground because not all bodies are buried. Another general indicator is increased insect activity in a certain area and a strong odor of decomposition especially if the remains aren’t buried. Perpetrators will often want to be rid of the body as quickly as possible and often bodies are found not far from roads as they look to make an easy escape from the area.