Introduction to Forensic Anthropology
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Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Steven N. Byers

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eBook - ePub

Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Steven N. Byers

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About This Book

This book provides comprehensive coverage of the methods and issues in the current practice of forensic anthropology. It introduces students to all the major topics in the field, with material ranging from the attribution of ancestry and sex, to various forms of bone trauma, to identification through radiography.

Introduction to Forensic Anthropology uses the terminology and best practices recommended by the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Anthropology (SWGANTH). The fifth edition has been fully updated in light of recent developments, incorporating new and improved methods as well as fresh data. The section on human osteology and odontology in particular has been expanded.

This accessible and engaging text offers an array of features to support teaching and learning, including:

  • boxed case studies
  • extensive figures and photographs
  • chapter summaries and student exercises
  • a glossary of terms
  • further resources via a companion website
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Chapter 1

In 2009, a woman walking her dog in the area known as the West Mesa of Albuquerque, New Mexico, discovered human bones that eventually lead the police to the skeletal remains of 11 bodies (plus one fetus) believed to be prostitutes. In 1991, a fully clothed skeleton was found lying on an open-coil box spring mattress beneath the front porch of a house in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. In the basement of a burned-out house in Tennessee, a charred skeleton was discovered among the debris left from a fire. In 1979, the partially skeletonized remains of a young adult male, exhibiting a crushing blow to the side of the skull and cut marks to the bones of the thorax, were recovered from a wooded area in the Midwestern United States. Despite the differences in time and geographic location, all of these cases had one thing in common: one of the most important persons involved in the investigation of these remains was a forensic anthropologist.
Forensic anthropology is the field of study that deals with the analysis of human skeletal remains resulting from unexplained deaths. Experts in this discipline, because of their understanding of skeletal biology and associated subjects, examine human bones with the goal of extracting as much information as possible about persons represented by skeletal remains and about the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Since forensic anthropology employs the principles of anthropology to analyze legal problems involving human osteological material, it is an applied science that embraces both anthropological and forensic studies.
Forensic anthropologists attempt to accomplish five main objectives in their work. First, when soft tissue has deteriorated to the point that demographic characteristics of a body cannot be determined by visual inspection, these forensic specialists attempt to determine ancestry (i.e., race or ethnic group), sex, age, and living height from the skeleton. Second, when there is evidence of traumatic injury (e.g., bullet holes, stab wounds, fractures) to human bone, forensic anthropologists attempt to identify the nature of the traumas and their causative agent(s) with the intent of gathering information pertaining to the cause and manner of death. Third, since forensic anthropologists have studied how a human body decomposes over time, they often can render a determination of the postmortem interval, that is, the amount of time that has passed since persons have died. Fourth, because they are acquainted with the methods of archaeology, these specialists can assist in locating and recovering buried or surface remains in such a manner that all evidence relevant to a forensic investigation is collected. Finally, forensic anthropologists, using the unique features present in virtually all skeletons, can provide information useful in obtaining positive identifications of deceased persons.
As mentioned above, forensic anthropology intersects with both anthropological and forensic studies. Anthropology is the study of the biological and cultural aspects of all humans in all places in all times. One subdivision of this discipline is biological anthropology, the study of the biological evolution and development of humans. Forensic anthropology is one of the specialties within this subdiscipline. The forensic sciences are those fields of study in medicine and jurisprudence that deal with legal issues, both criminal and civil. Since forensic anthropology is the study of skeletal material that comes under the jurisdiction of law enforcement and other similar agencies, it also is one of the forensic sciences.
Forensic anthropologists usually study skeletons of deceased persons (i.e., decedents) that the medicolegal community (e.g., medical investigators, coroners) has defined as requiring investigation. Generally, these are people who have died within the last 50 years when not in the care of a physician. Fifty years is the appropriate period for investigating deaths, because this is the time in which it is probable that those personally knowledgeable of decedents and the circumstances surrounding their deaths might still be alive. (This would include the perpetrator of a crime in cases of homicide.) Thus, forensic anthropologists deal with the skeletonized remains of persons whose deaths could be the result of criminal activity within the present adult human life span.
As stated above, the traditional role of forensic anthropologists is to work with cases of human deaths when soft tissue has degenerated to the point that other medical forensic specialists (e.g., pathologists) cannot determine demographics, time since death, and cause and manner of death. Forensic anthropologists step in when decomposition is so advanced that these characteristics can be determined only from skeletal remains. However, forensic anthropologists increasingly are becoming involved as consultants even when soft tissue is present. Thus, law enforcement agencies may ask forensic anthropologists to view the bones of a “fleshed” body to determine if there is fracturing under tissues that have not decomposed. Similarly, forensic anthropologists may help to untangle the sequence and trajectories of multiple bullet wounds to “fresh” bodies. In addition, when age cannot be determined from a cadaver, forensic anthropologists harvest parts of bones to determine this demographic characteristic. Finally, because of their knowledge of bone and tooth changes during growth, they have been asked to estimate the age of living young persons accused of crimes to determine if they are old enough to stand trial as adults.
In addition to the above-described work, forensic anthropologists fulfill a number of other roles in modern society. First, these specialists are consulted in the identification of victims of mass disasters. Airplane crashes, wars, terrorist attacks, acts of nature, or any phenomenon in which a large number of people perish and their remains are dismembered or disfigured are events that may need the skills of forensic anthropologists. Thus, when the Big Thompson River in north-central Colorado unexpectedly flooded in 1976, killing 139 people, a forensic anthropologist (Michael Charney), working as a deputy coroner with other specialists, helped organize the effort that led to the positive identification of all victims. Similarly, a forensic anthropologist (Stanley Rhine) assisted the Office of the Medical Investigator in 1980 when riots at the State Penitentiary in Santa Fe, New Mexico, left a number of inmate bodies burned beyond recognition.
Another area in which forensic anthropologists work is the study of atrocities committed during warfare. Civil unrest has resulted in the deaths of numerous victims of political violence in many countries, particularly those in Central and South America, as well as in various countries in Africa and Europe. A number of organizations, such as Physicians for Human Rights and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, provide funding for consultants to travel to various countries to investigate these deaths. And forensic anthropologists are often in the group that performs this work. In the Americas, one major figure in these types of investigations was Clyde Collins Snow. This famous forensic anthropologist has done much to bring to light the circumstances surrounding the deaths of victims of political violence, as well as helping to organize and educate local authorities on the methods used to investigate atrocities.
Finally, forensic anthropologists have become involved in the study of persons of historical interest but of no medicolegal significance. For example, William R. Maples brought his expertise to the study of the skeleton of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire, who in 1541 was murdered by political rivals (see Box 1.1). He also studied the remains of the last czar of Russia and his family, who were executed by firing squad in 1918, as well as the remains of President Zachary Taylor, who some persons have suspected of dying by poisoning. Similarly, Douglas H. Ubelaker studied the skeleton of Carl Weiss, the accused assassin of Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana in 1935. His work, showing the trajectory of the bullets fired by Long’s bodyguards that killed Weiss, helped lay to rest questions about the authenticity of the official reports of the time.

BOX 1.1
The Analysis of Francisco Pizarro

In 1984, William R. Maples was part of a team that analyzed the skeleton of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire. Pizarro was assassinated in 1541 by the son of a dead rival who wished revenge for the death of his father and the loss of his lands, for both of which Pizarro was responsible. Using swords and perhaps a crossbow, the assassins assaulted Pizarro while he was eating his Sunday meal. Accounts of the assassination, told by conspirators who confessed, indicate that Pizarro was disabled by a sword cut to the throat; then, as he lay on the ground, his body was pierced by multiple sword thrusts and possibly shot by a crossbow. Over the years, the body of Pizarro was moved and reburied on several occasions, causing his remains to become lost. Several skeletons were attributed to the conqueror of Peru, resulting in a request by Peruvian historians for Maples and others to examine remains in an attempt to provide an identification.
When Maples went to Lima, he was confronted with two boxes, one of which contained the mixed remains of several adults and children; the other contained human bones and a lead box with a traumatized human skull. After viewing the material, Maples determined that the skull in the lead box belonged to a headless skeleton in the other box. This skeleton was of a 5-foot, 5-inch to 5-foot, 9-inch White male who was over 60 years old at the time of his death. All of these demographic characteristics agreed with what was known of Pizarro at the time of his death. The skeleton showed no less than 11 and as many as 14 cut marks to the vertebral column, arms, and head. Most of the cuts were concentrated on the head and neck area, which agreed with the description of the assassination provided by the conspirators. One cut indicated that a double-edged instrument (probably a sword) was thrust from the right side, cutting the right vertebral artery and nicking the first neck (cervical) vertebra. The skull also manifested a thrust wound to the left eye orbit that exited through its outside wall. Similarly, a thin-bladed instrument had been thrust up through the neck where it entered the braincase; it was twisted in place and then withdrawn and thrust in again. Given the demographics of the skeleton and the agreement of its trauma with the recorded death of Pizarro, the identification of these remains as the conqueror of Peru was considered “positive.”
This field holds a fascination for all who work in it, or for those who simply come in passing contact with it. The analysis of human skeletal remains for information on deceased persons is an area that is becoming known to law enforcement and the general public. Therefore, it is the purpose of this book to provide an overview of the basic methods used by forensic anthropologists to examine human skeletal remains. Specifically, the goal of the author is to describe each step in the forensic anthropological process with equal intensity and detail so that a clear understanding of the field will result. After reading this work, although they will not become experts, students will have an appreciation of what can, and cannot, be determined from human skeletal remains.


For his pioneering work concerning the medicolegal aspects of the human skeleton, Thomas Dwight (1843–1911) has been credited as the “Father of Forensic Anthropology in the United States” (Stewart, 1979). Dwight (Figure 1.1) was the first to write articles and essays, as well as to give lectures, on the topic of human skeletal identification, which was the original designation of forensic anthropology. During his lifetime, he researched methods for determining age, height, and sex from the sternum (breastbone); estimating stature without using bones of the arms and legs; determining a...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Introduction to Forensic Anthropology
APA 6 Citation
Byers, S. (2016). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology (5th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Byers, Steven. (2016) 2016. Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Byers, S. (2016) Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 5th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Byers, Steven. Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.