Forensic Anthropology

The field of forensic anthropology has changed significantly in the past 10 years. Originally forensic anthropology focused almost exclusively on the assessment of biological profile information, such as age, sex, stature and ancestry, derived from the study of human skeletal tissues (bones), in efforts to help identify the individual. Forensic anthropologists are experts in the analysis of human bones (identification of individual bones, assessment of biological profile, modifications of bones, and skeletal trauma (blunt force, sharp force, and gunshot).

 

In the last few years, the subdisciplines of forensic archaeology (outdoor crime scene recovery) and forensic taphonomy (what has happened to a body since death) have been added to the repertoire of forensic anthropology. Properly trained forensic anthropologists are called to assist law enforcement and medicolegal authorities in the processing of outdoor forensic scenes, including surface-scattered sites, buried body (clandestine grave) features, fatal fire scenes (structures, cars and outdoor firepits). Law enforcement training in these areas and types of scenes are very limited. Forensic anthropologists are the recognized experts in the recovery, analysis, and interpretation of outdoor crime scenes.

Forensic Taphonomy

Forensic Archaeology

Forensic Taphonomy is the study of what has happened to a set of remains after death. This can involve everything from animal predation and root etching on the bones, to the movement of the body by another human or by an intense rainstorm. All of the factors that could potentially alter remains in a postsmortem setting should be analyized and interpreted by an expert in the field. This analysis is critical in understanding the crime scene as a whole, one of many reasons a forensic anthropologist should be present at the scene itself, not only examining the remains in a lab setting.

Forensic archaeology is the use of principles, practices and methods of standard prehistoric and historic archaeology in the location, documentation of outdoor forensic scenes, including human remains found scattered on the surface of the forest floor, clandestine graves, fatal fire scenes in structure and car fires, and even in mass disaster scenes (train and plane crashes). It includes methods for creating systematic efficient and effective large-scale searches for unlocated scenes and forensically-significant evidence, scene documentation and mapping protocols to careful note the evidence, and ultimately, produce scientifically-based reconstructions of past activities at the scene (outdoor crime scene reconstructions).

Human Skeletal Cases

Skeletal Trauma

Forensic anthropologists are far and away the best trained experts to analyze human skeletal remains found in forensic settings. Human osteology (the study of bones) skills in differentiating human vs animal bones, determining the name and side of the bones, dealing with fragmented bones, and even altered bones (including fire-altered and cremated remains). Forensic anthropologists also are the best at extracting information relative to human skeletal biological profile, including the assessment of chronological age of the individual at death, as well as the sex, stature and ancestry of the deceased. Forensic anthropologists are also the best at interpreting alterations exhibited by the bones, resulting from exposure to the elements, animal modification, and even alteration from heat and fire. Forensic anthropologists also are experts in human skeletal

Analysis of skeletal trauma is an intrinsic part of a forensic anthropologist’s role. The ability to determine the cause of skeletal trauma (weapon used) and when the trauma occurred (before, during or after death) are the essentials of skeletal trauma anaylsis. The primary forms of skeletal trauma examined by forensic anthropologists are blunt force, sharp force and gunshot trauma. The knowledge gained from theses analyses is fundamental to criminal investigations, and should be provided by an individual with extensive training in a lab setting combined with field experience.

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Dennis Dirkmaat,
PhD, D-ABFA
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Michael Hochrein,
FBI (Ret.)

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