Anthropology is the study of humans and it consists of several sub-fields:
- Physical anthropology — The study of the primate order, past and present, such as primate biology, skeletal biology, and human adaptation
- Cultural and linguistic anthropology — The study of the aspects of human society and language, past and present
- Archaeology — The study of past cultures via material remains and artifacts
To some degree, forensic anthropologists draw on each of these fields, but generally rely on knowledge from physical anthropology to apply their expertise to skeletal remains. According to 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."
Stanley Rhine is professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Author of Bone Voyage: A Journey in Forensic Anthropology, he was working in a museum's osteology lab when he got his first call in 1974. Four skeletonized bodies had been discovered in the northern New Mexican wilderness, victims of a light aircraft crash six years earlier. Forensic anthropologist Clyde C. Snow was assisting the FAA, but they needed a place to lay out the skeletons. Could the lab assist them? Rhine viewed this as an interesting break from routine and was happy to help. From that experience, he was hooked and he invited the recently formed statewide death investigation unit to call on him for other cases. Now with over two decades of experience behind him, he has a pretty good sense of what forensic anthropology involves.
While forensic pathologists are trained to analyze soft tissue and organs, he notes, their experience with hard tissue (bone) is limited. "The forensic anthropologist specializes in hard tissue morphology, structure and variability. In those cases in which soft tissue has been degraded by time, temperature, environment or other external forces, the only tissue remaining more or less intact is bone. The obvious person to call in to evaluate such material is the bone specialist. Moreover, it should be not just your garden-variety osteologist, but one who's trained in the medicolegal context where it is essential to be able to unerringly distinguish among ante-, peri- and postmortem defects, and where time since death is a significant factor."
Quite often, it's the pathologist or medical examiner who calls the forensic anthropologist in for consultation. Thus, they establish a working relationship. "By and large," says Rhine, "it is the pathologist who tells the anthropologist what he expects, when the case will be available, and what kind of support will be offered. He generally sets the tone of the work."
It takes years of experience and training in bone analysis to become a skilled FA. "Practice, practice, practice," Rhine insists. "A person pursuing work in forensic anthropology should accompany someone more experienced to the morgue to work on cases—many cases. He or she should be immersed in such activity and take every opportunity to attend meetings and engage in the exchange of information with others in the field. They need to bolster their experience and broaden it with the insights and observations of others. In short, they should develop a collegial experience. But attitudes are also important, such as patience, the willingness to return again and again to a skeleton to tease out those tiny, hidden revelations, and the perseverance to push against the barriers of ignorance to see how much more can be done."