The University of Tennessee, Knoxville offers three main areas of concentration within anthropology: Archaeology, Biological Anthropology, and Cultural Anthropology. Forensic Anthropology is offered as a specialization within Biological Anthropology. In accordance with the aims and goals of forensic anthropology, the focus of our program is the application of skeletal biological techniques to the identification of decomposing and skeletal remains for law enforcement and medicolegal agencies and investigations.
Students entering our graduate program in biological anthropology should possess varied backgrounds and are encouraged to build upon those strengths. Anthropology encompasses many ancillary fields of science, and students are expected to develop other areas of expertise (i.e. microscopy, chemistry, anatomy).
Students are required to demonstrate proficiency in statistics and related areas of anthropology. Our program is highly research-oriented and our students are expected to initiate and conduct research for presentation and publication.
What is Forensic Anthropology?
Generally speaking, forensic anthropology is the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to help with the recovery of human remains, determine the identity of unidentified human remains, interpret trauma, and estimate time since death.
Further definition of the term is necessary to understand the scope and basis of forensic anthropology. Anthropology alone is the study of man. Anthropologists are interested in culture (cultural anthropologists), language (linguistic anthropologists), the physical remains or artifacts left behind by human occupation (archaeologists), and human remains (physical anthropologists).
Over the past century, physical anthropologists have developed methods to evaluate bones to understand people who lived in the past. Such questions might include: Was this individual male or female? How old were they when they died? How tall were they? Were the people in good or poor general health?
Forensic anthropology involves the application of these same methods to modern cases of unidentified human remains. Through the established methods, a forensic anthropologist can aid law enforcement in establishing a profile of the unidentified remains. The profile includes sex, age, ancestry, height, length of time since death, and sometimes the evaluation of trauma observed on bones.
In many cases after the identity of an individual is made, the forensic anthropologist is called to testify in court regarding the identity of the remains and/or the trauma or wounds present on the remains.
What Do Forensic Anthropologists Do?
Forensic anthropologists are commonly portrayed in the media as forensic scientists and/or crime scene technicians, but this is not accurate. Forensic anthropologists deal strictly with human remains. While some people trained in forensic anthropology are also trained in evidence collection techniques, most forensic anthropologists only specialize in techniques related to the analysis of the remains.
Generally, forensic anthropologists DO NOT do any of the following:
Collect trace evidence (hair, fibers)
Run DNA tests
Analyze ballistics or weapon evidence
Analyze blood spatter
What a forensic anthropologist Does do to aid in a case:
Assist law enforcement with the location and recovery of human remains at crime scenes
Cleans the bones so that they may be examined
Analyze skeletal remains to establish the biological profile of the individual
Interpret trauma evident on the bones to establish the type and extent of injuries
Works with a forensic odontologist (dentist) to match dental records
Testifies in court about the identity of the individual and/or the injuries that might be evident in the skeleton
Estimate the time since death
What Does it Take to Become a Forensic Anthropologist?
This information is geared towards high school, undergraduate, or new graduate students who are interested in forensic anthropology and want to know more about the discipline.
Here at The University of Tennessee, we often receive questions from students who want to know what forensic anthropology is, and how they can become involved. Hopefully, this page will answer some of your questions!
The road to forensic anthropology can be a long one, but it is also very fulfilling. To use your skills to help law enforcement agencies resolve crimes and mysteries is rewarding. But be prepared – it involves years of study and training in school. You will need to earn a Ph.D. degree in order to practice forensic anthropology, and that means at least another eight to ten years of school after you graduate high school!
Another factor to consider is this: while there are a few forensic anthropologists who work independently (as part of a medical examiner’s office, for the military, etc.) the overwhelming majority of forensic anthropologists work in universities. This means you will be a college professor who teaches physical anthropology most of the time and works on forensic anthropology cases some of the time.
You also have to consider if you can deal with the sights, smells, and impact of death. Truly, this work is not for the faint of heart – sights, sounds, odors, and the tangible products of human decomposition are everyday occurrences. Also, you will run across many sad and disturbing cases that might affect you, so please make sure you are prepared. The good news is, however, that most people who are serious about becoming forensic anthropologists are able to overcome these obstacles.
What Training Do Forensic Anthropologists Need?
Current minimum requirements necessary to become a forensic anthropologist include a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology or a closely related field, a Master’s degree in anthropology, and a Ph.D. in physical anthropology.
Additionally, during their education, the student must seek out opportunities to gain experience by assisting an established forensic anthropologist with casework.
After the Ph.D., there is still additional training to complete. Though not currently a requirement, the American Board of Forensic Anthropology recognizes established forensic anthropologists as diplomats after the required educational requirements are met and the candidate successfully completes written and practical exams.
What are Examples of Cases Forensic Anthropologists Work on?
Here are two case scenarios where the assistance of a forensic anthropologist would be necessary:
A hunter is in the woods and comes across what he thinks is a human skull. He marks the area and goes to get the police to bring them back to the area. A forensic anthropologist might be called to assist in determining first of all if the remains are in fact human. If the remains are human then the anthropologist can assist law enforcement with the collection of the remains at the scene. Typically the anthropologist would photograph the remains prior to removal and also make a pictorial view or site map of the area so that if need be the scene could be recreated later. During the scene work, the anthropologist would work with other crime scene specialists who might be interested in other evidence that could be found at the scene such as weapons, blood, DNA, etc. Forensic anthropologists can then look at the bones to establish a profile of the remains including the age, sex, ethnicity, height, time since death, and trauma. If the police have a missing person in mind, the forensic anthropologist can then work with the medical examiner and forensic odontologist to determine if the identity is a match.
A forensic pathologist is presented with partially decomposed remains of an individual and the identity has already been established. However, there is evidence of multiple traumatic injuries (example: gunshot wounds and/or knife wounds) that occurred close to the time of death and the state of the remains prevents the pathologist from being able to fully understand the extent of the trauma to the remains. The forensic anthropologist aids the pathologist by cleaning the bones and looking closely at them to determine the number and type of traumatic episodes. Through their analyses, the forensic anthropologist is able to identify multiple types of traumatic injury, potentially an important factor in the trial.