FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY

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As defined by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, forensic anthropology is the application of the science of physical anthropology to the legal process. The identification of skeletal, badly decomposed, or otherwise unidentified human remains is important for both legal and humanitarian reasons. Forensic anthropologists apply standard scientific techniques developed in physical anthropology to identify human remains and to assist in the detection of crime.

Anthropologist Randy Skelton explains: "Methods and techniques to assess age, sex, stature, ancestry, and analyze trauma and disease are generally developed to help anthropologists understand different populations living all over the world at different times throughout history. When we take these methods and apply them to unknown modem human remains, with the aim of establishing identity or manner of death, then we are practicing the forensic application of osteology."

Forensic anthropologists frequently work in conjunction with forensic pathologists, odontologists, and homicide investigators to identify a decedent, discover evidence of foul play, and/or establish the postmortem interval. In addition to assisting in locating and recovering suspicious remains, forensic anthropologists work to suggest the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of a decedent from the skeleton.



Increasingly forensic anthropologists are being used to identify the remains of victims of homicides, mass disasters, and political atrocities.

Forensic anthropologists also deal with other issues. For example, Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist Douglas Ubelaker examines the problems of the homeless in contemporary society. "By looking at the pattern of trauma and disease on the skeleton we could learn a lot about his lifestyle, which in turn tells us something about the biology of the homeless."

THE BRANCHES OF ANTHROPOLOGY

There are three major subfields or branches of anthropology- cultural, archaeological, and physical. Some also include linguistics as a fourth subfield.

Cultural anthropology deals with the different and varied aspects of human society, culture, behavior, beliefs, ways of life, and so on. It can study both non-technologic societies and technologic societies, past and present.

Archaeology is the study of past cultures, through peoples' material remains and artifacts. The lifestyles of past peoples can be studied from what they leave behind. This can range from small shards of pottery to large dwellings such as huts or houses of worship. Archaeological research covers a vast array of cultures throughout time and space-from prehistory on up to our recent past, all over the world.

Forensic anthropologists will find it useful to be familiar and comfortable with archaeological methods used in the uncovering of artifacts. Other disciplines that can overlap with archaeology include geology, geography, ecology, and history.

Physical-also known as biological-anthropology deals with the physical and biological aspects of the primate order: humans, chimps, gorillas, monkeys, and so on, both past and present.

Some of the specialized areas covered under this largest subfield of anthropology include:
  • primatology-the primate biology and behavior
  • osteology-the study of bones
  • paleoanthropology-the study of primate evolution
  • paleodemography-vital statistics of past populations
  • skeletal biology
  • human variation and adaptation
  • genetics
  • nutrition
  • dental anthropology
Most forensic anthropologists are primarily trained in physical anthropology. Forensic anthropology is an "applied" area, borrowing methods and techniques developed from skeletal biology and osteology and applying them to cases of forensic importance.

Some forensic anthropologists are skilled in the art of facial reproduction. This involves the modeling of how a face may have appeared in the living subject using the only surviving evidence-a skull. Artists and sculptors also work in this area.

Other forensic anthropologists have developed skills in the determination of time elapsed since death by examining insect remains and states of body decomposition.

Forensic anthropologists, with their naturalistic approach to recovery of skeletons, examination of animal remains, and analysis of soil and vegetation patterns, can successfully recover human remains from different kinds of terrain, for example, deserts or forests.

TRAINING

There are no actual programs in forensic anthropology. Students can major in anthropology at the undergraduate level, and then go on for a master's, or preferably a Ph.D., specializing in physical anthropology or anatomy.

Those who want to pursue forensic anthropology seek out a mentor, take additional courses and workshops in related forensic sciences, and participate in internships in appropriate settings, such as in a medical examiner's office.

Because most forensic anthropologists work in universities, a Ph.D. is almost always the basic requirement.

Forensic Anthropologist Dr. A. Midori Albert, who provides a firsthand account at the end of this chapter, offers the following advice:

'The best way to approach your education in forensic anthropology is to realize that, above all, you are an anthropologist first...your specialty in the applied area of forensic science is secondary. Basically, all forensic anthropologists are anthropologists, but not all anthropologists are forensic anthropologists.

"At the undergraduate level, you do not want to specialize. You will most likely be required to take classes in each of the three sub-fields of anthropology to ensure your breadth of training:
  • cultural anthropology: behaviors, rituals, belief systems, economies, kinship, traditions, history, language, art, etc., of various societies throughout the world, past and present

  • archaeology: reconstructing the lives of ancient or historic peoples from their material remains (artifacts), or studying what modern people leave behind

  • physical/biological anthropology: aspects of human beings themselves-bones, diet and nutrition, growth, disease, reproduction, adaptation, human evolution; aspects of primates-behaviors, evolution, and ecology
"The above list may also include linguistics (study of language), depending on where you choose to study anthropology.

"In short, as an undergraduate student (working on your bachelor's degree), it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with many different areas of anthropology first. From a solid foundation you can then branch out and specialize. For example, you can focus on physical anthropology, where you may wish to specialize in osteology, which can later be applied to forensic settings.

"Additionally, you could benefit greatly from courses in genetics, biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy/physiology, zoology, and statistics. Many of these classes also will satisfy your basic studies or core freshman and sophomore requirements.

"To be admitted to graduate school in anthropology, you should have a bachelor's (B.A.) in anthropology or at the very least a minor or its equivalent. By equivalent I mean at least one anthropology survey course in each of the subfields: cultural, archaeology, physical, and language and culture or linguistics (if offered). Statistics would be great, and is highly recommended. A history and theory class in anthropology would further enhance your minor, if it's not already required. Any undergraduate courses in anatomy/physiology or vertebrate anatomy also would be a tremendous benefit. I highly recommend genetics.

"Concentrate on earning a high grade point average (GPA), and strive to earn the best score you can on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). There are prep classes, books, CD-ROMS, etc., to help you here.

"Additionally, any undergraduate research you can do is a major plus. Get to know your professors. Find out what research they're involved in and make time to volunteer. Good-and not just mediocre- recommendation letters from your professors who know you are vital.

"Develop your writing skills; a well-written, concise, informative essay goes a long way in making a good first impression in an application packet.

"In searching for an M.A. program, don't worry about going into a program where there is no forensic anthropologist on the faculty. Find an excellent osteologist or skeletal biologist with whom to study, to be your mentor. What you need at this level is a solid background in physical anthropology, and more importantly, osteology. Become proficient with statistics. Learn to identify bones, how to analyze them, what interpretations and explanations can be made from those analyses-in every context, not just the forensic context. The forensic applications can be learned later, at the Ph.D. level or even beyond. And, after a good foundation at the M.A. level, it will be all the more easy to understand the forensic applications of bone analyses.

"If you happen to be applying to a program where you can study the forensic applications of osteology at the M.A. level, and then go for it. My point here is that it's not necessary; but if the opportunity is there, by all means goes with it.

"In applying to graduate school, you may apply to programs offering both the M.A. and Ph.D. or to programs offering the M.A.

"Many people go to one school for their B.A., then another for their M.A. and Ph.D.; still others go to one school for the B.A., another for the M.A., and yet another for the Ph.D. The idea here is that you get different perspectives from different anthropologists on aspects of the field. In a sense, you are trying to avoid academic inbreeding and expand your way of thinking.

"On average, many people finish the M.A. in anthropology in about two to three years, sometimes more. The Ph.D. varies even more widely. It's not uncommon for it to take five to eight years, sometimes more. Also, it takes time to gain experience teaching; many graduate students in anthropology go on to become professors and community college teachers or lecturers, so teaching experience is important.

"Many graduate students become teaching assistants (T.A.s) and conduct labs or discussion sections of classes for undergraduate students.

"In summary, it may take as few as five years or up to eight or ten years to get your M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology-if you're going to specialize in osteology or skeletal biology. You may learn the forensic applications along the way, or you may choose to learn them at the postdoctorate level (post-doc). It is important not to rush. What good are the degrees if you're not well-trained, not confident in what you know, and have no jobs to apply for? Timing is more important than time."

JOB SETTINGS

Unfortunately, forensic anthropology offers few opportunities for full-time employment. Virtually all the forensic anthropologists in the United States have Ph.Ds. in anatomy or physical anthropology; with very few exceptions, they occupy academic positions in departments of anthropology or archaeology and do forensic anthropology as a sideline.

Those working outside the university environment are employed by medical examiner's offices or law-enforcement agencies, work as curators in museums, or work in local, state, or federal crime labs as a regular staff member who just happens to have expertise in forensic anthropology.

Others work for the army, which hires a few forensic anthropologists at their forensic centers in Hawaii and Washington, DC.

They also can be self-employed, offering their services nationally to federal agencies or to any local law-enforcement agency that doesn't have a nearby forensic anthropologist to rely on.

FINDING A JOB

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) operates a placement service designed to aid anthropologists in their search for jobs and to facilitate communication between job seekers and employers. At the annual meeting the placement service is open free of charge to all association members; it provides job boards that list available jobs, a message center for communication between job seekers and employers, and interview space.

Registrants for the year-round placement service receive advance copies of "position open" forms that employers file with the placement service at the annual meeting, referrals to nonacademic jobs from employers recruiting placement service candidates, and other services such as making your resume available to employers.

To obtain forms and further information about the Placement Service, contact AAA Placement Service, 4350 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 640, Arlington, VA 22203-1620.

Other outlets for job hunting are the usual networking, classified ads in local papers for law enforcement agencies, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education for academic placement.

SAMPLE JOB

Full-time Faculty Position

University, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and

Criminal Justice invites applications for a full-time, tenure-track faculty position at the assistant level. The position offers the opportunity to teach law and other graduate students. Requirements include: Ph.D. in anthropology or justice or law-related fields; teaching expertise in the area of legal anthropology and in one or more of the following areas-juvenile delinquency, gender, family, victimology, comparative criminal justice, violent crime and/or organized crime. Demonstrable record of research and publication in these or related fields and a commitment to teaching excellence are required.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT

A. Midori Albert, Forensic Anthropologist

A. Midori Albert is an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. In his role as forensic anthropologist, he is a consultant with the military and local law-enforcement agencies.

He earned his B.A. in psychology with a minor in anthropology in 1990 from the University of Florida in Gainesville. He earned his M.A. in anthropology from the University of Florida in 1993 and his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1995.

He began studying forensic anthropology as a graduate student in 1991 and started working at the University of North Carolina in 1995. Workshops in forensic sciences he has attended include the International Forensic Photography Workshop, given through the Dade County Medical Examiner Department in Miami, Florida, and the Medico-legal Death Investigators' Training Course in St. Louis, Missouri.

"I was fascinated by the human skeleton and human variation in general, across time and space. The idea that we could learn about diet, nutrition, trauma, how a person lived and died, was amazing to me. When I discovered that one could examine unknown contemporary skeletons to assist in establishing identity and manner of death, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

"I also liked the academic environment. I enjoy discovery and learning new things. I like the detective work, the puzzle-solving aspect of the forensic sciences. To be a professor where I can teach, conduct research, and offer consultations on forensic cases is so rewarding because I get to do the many different things I like."

WHAT THE WORK IS LIKE

"Forensic anthropology is the application of methods and theories derived from the specializations of human osteology, skeletal biology within the subfield of anthropology known as physical or biological anthropology, and some archaeology, another subfield of anthropology.

"Forensic anthropologists draw on skeletal data, formulae, and gross observations to establish an identity profile-to determine sex, age, ancestry, stature-and assess pathology (trauma and/or disease), as well as determine how long a body has been dead. Essentially, forensic anthropologists assist in the identification of people from their skeletal remains and help assess the manner of death.

"My job is varied and a typical day is hard to define. The following are activities I engage in throughout the semester, and they may fall out in any given combination:
  • I teach courses in general physical anthropology, human osteology, forensic anthropology, primate biology and behavior, dental anthropology, and direct independent study projects.

  • I attend departmental and university committee meetings (the business end of academia).

  • I work in my laboratory, collecting skeletal data, running statistical tests, and analyzing results.

  • I may spend part of the day writing a journal article. Much of forensic anthropology is about research and providing the very data we all rely on when consulting on cases.

  • I may be consulting on a forensic case.
"When I do consult on a forensic case, it's usually not planned. The phone rings, or there's an E-mail about a set of unknown bones. Our medical examiner in the state of North Carolina is unusual in that he seems to like working with decomposed remains. As a result, he often does his own osteological analyses-which are not common in most states. I typically consult with the military. About forty-five miles north of Wilmington is a marine base, Camp LeJeune. I also have assisted in forensic cases for the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS), whereas most forensic anthropologists work with the medical examiner.

'I also have assisted local law enforcement (sheriff's and city police) in the identification of human vs. nonhuman remains. I have searched wooded areas for human remains; and I have been present for the draining of a pond in search of human remains.

"Questions of family genealogy and the mystery of unmarked graves have brought people to my lab. I excavated a grave to help identify a family member, and I have consulted on how to find clandestine graves.

"I want to convey that it's not like we're some weird lab scientists with bubbling potions and ghosts flying around, working in a dark dingy musty basement lab (like morgues are often depicted in movies). Rather, my lab has two sunny windows and walls in a happy, soothing color. I find my workday is quite pleasant, really, aside from occasional odors.

'The other thing I've found, not through any objective scientific inquiry, is that most folks in the forensic sciences have wonderful senses of humor. I believe it's because the work can be depressing, and naturally optimistic people balance this out.

"Not all of my work directly involves dead bodies and hands-on activities. There is really a lot of variation among forensic anthropologists in terms of what constitutes our daily duties. I also contribute to the field of forensic science by conducting workshops for law enforcement personnel. Proper search and recovery methods are a must, and I find this is a major way forensic anthropologists can contribute to the entire team approach to forensic science. It truly is a multidisciplinary effort."

UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES

"What I like most about my work is the constant challenge and change-new research topics, new students, new cases. I also like the flexibility in my schedule and the freedom to explore areas I believe need more research.

"What I like least about my work is the struggle to bring the realization and appreciation of the multidisciplinary approach to the forefront of people's minds. Sometimes I get tied down with the business end of things, leaving less time to study the bones."

SALARIES

"I earn $45,000+ a year; this is for a nine-month contract. The "+" means that it varies from year to year because I'm involved in many activities that generate additional income, for example, online courses, workshops, consulting, and so on.

"Forensic anthropologists' salaries vary, much like any other profession. Physicians, attorneys, auto mechanics, celebrities all earn different salaries. As a university professor, my salary may differ from those forensic anthropologists who work for medical examiner offices or for government agencies. What I like best about my compensation is the chunk that goes to retirement and health insurance. It's a pretty beefy package when you include those things."

ADVICE FROM A. MIDORI ALBERT

"It's my opinion that only people who want to do what they love pursue forensic anthropology or an academic career. We don't do it for the money. The rewards are many and difficult to explain to someone who just wants to make big bucks. The luxury of time to think and interact with colleagues and students and lay people is wonderful.

"If you love bones, in any context, not just the forensic, and if you truly want to satisfy your intellectual curiosity and keep your mind working in amazing ways, then this field is for you. The education and training process can be long and arduous, but if bones are what you love, then the process is just as enjoyable as the outcome.

'To get started, major in anthropology, you can explore the American Anthropological Association Guide to Departments. This is a reference book published annually, listing all the anthropology departments in the United States, the faculty, their areas of research/ expertise, whether there are graduate programs, and so on.

"There are no degrees offered in forensic anthropology, though. The field of study is anthropology, the focus is the subfield of physical/ biological anthropology, and the specialization may be human osteology/ skeletal biology with a forensic component. The anthropology department here offers an undergraduate degree in anthropology. At the undergraduate level, the emphasis is on breadth. Exposure to cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology, human evolution, genetics, primates, adaptation and variation, osteology, history and theory, and statistics is of utmost importance.

"I do offer undergraduate research opportunities for our majors interested in various osteology projects. This is a great opportunity to gain experience (which makes graduate research easier), to get an edge in applying to graduate school (because you've been able to demonstrate your abilities and show your serious interest), and to basically have fun.

"Investigate where you want to go, and find a human osteologist or skeletal biologist active in research. This will ensure you get a strong, broad background forming a solid foundation in osteology. From there, you can specialize in the forensic aspects of human osteology.

"It's not necessary to work with a forensic anthropologist as an undergraduate or as an M.A. student. Most people begin studying forensic anthropology as graduate students or even after the Ph.D. as a post-doc because of the advanced level of statistics, anatomy, and other areas that are needed to be understood.

"There's much to know and it doesn't all happen overnight. Be patient and gather as much information and experience as you can. Intern at a medical examiner facility, if possible. Volunteer to work in osteology labs. Be willing to do volunteer work to gain hands-on experience. Attend an archaeology field school if you can to learn excavation techniques.

'The downside of this career is that there are very few jobs. When I explored this career back in 1990, my professor told me there would be no jobs. I went for it anyway, thinking that if I have a passion for what I do, then I'd be good at it. And, if I were good at it, surely I could find some way to make a living. I believe I'm extremely fortunate to be where I am today. But, it's like my Ph.D. professor said, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.' So, it's not luck as much as it is tenacity, patience, attention to detail, thirst for knowledge, endurance, and risk-taking that make someone successful in her/his career."
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