Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Anthropology:

Reading the Bones

Even so, there aren't many people in this field.  "Forensic anthropology has not been universally used across the country," Rhine explains, "because there aren't enough of us.  There may be on the order of 150 forensic anthropologists in the entire country. A couple of dozen are employed by the military, both in Washington and at the Army's Central Identification Lab in Hawaii. A few more are at the Smithsonian and other museums. The remainder tend to be underutilized, in part because of a reluctance by some pathologists to venture outside the expertise circumscribed by their own facilities.  In other instances, it is generally a tough, uphill battle to convince law enforcement agencies in some locales to deal with 'those goofy professors.'"

Much of what occurs in forensic anthropology comes from the area of osteology, or the study of bones, although some forensic anthropologists may also specialize in body decomposition and entomology (the study of insects).  Forensic anthropologists generally work with forensic pathologists, odontologists, and homicide investigators to point out evidence of foul play and assist with time of death estimates.

The human body has 206 bones.  They weigh about twelve pounds for the average male and ten pounds for females.  To calculate factors about the bones, they're laid out on an ostiometric board, which allows measurements to be made with calipers.  The basic identifying factors that investigators need to know, which can often be read from bones, are:

  • Gender — The male pelvis is narrower than the female, and certain features of the skull are larger in males; the bones tend to be heavier as well.
  • Age — In younger people, the stages at which bones are uniting show advancing age; for older people, calcium and other mineral deposits help as well, along with successive changes in the pelvis or evidence of bone diseases like arthritis; other clues come from the developmental stages in the teeth and from worn areas in enamel.
  • Previous trauma — If a bone was broken and there are hospital records, this can help with identification.
  • Race — One of three races can be determined from variations in the facial structure, especially the nose and eye sockets.  In Negroids and Mongoloids, the nose ridge is broader than in Caucasians.
  • Height — An intact corpse can be measured, but a disarticulated or incomplete skeleton has to be pieced together. One rule of thumb is that height is about five times the length of the humerus, but there are formulas for height based on other major bones as well (spine, tibia, and femur).
  • Body type —  Tables provide an estimate based on bone characteristics for determining whether the person was slender, of medium build, or heavy.
  • Cause of death — This might be evident in the skull or some of the bones: a knife cut, bullet holes, a blunt weapon fracture, or even a saw to dismember the bones.  Sometimes bones will yield evidence of poisoning as well

Forensic identification generally relies on comparing teeth to dental records; doing some type of DNA analysis, and facial revisioning or reconstruction from the shape of the skull.  Let's look at a famous case where several anthropologists worked together to identify the remains of one of the most hated and feared human beings who has ever lived. 

Stanley Rhine working on a plaster reconstruction.
Stanley Rhine working on a plaster reconstruction.

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