Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. It incorporates concepts and methods from biological anthropology (the study of the physical aspects of humanity).
Identifying unknown individuals is a key part of forensic anthropology. Anthropologists assist in identifications primarily by constructing a biological profile. This includes estimating age, sex, stature, and ancestry, as well as identifying specific characteristics, like diseases or injuries. In addition to helping identify human remains, the anthropologist analyzes injuries that happened around the time of a person’s death, which can help determine how a person died.
The first thing the examining anthropologist must determine is whether or not the material is bone. A surprising number of other materials may be mistaken for bone on first glance, especially if they are covered with dirt or other substances. Ceramic shards, plastic, wood fragments, rocks, small bits of concrete can all be mistaken for bones or bone fragments. To ensure the material is bone, the anthropologist cleans the object and examines it closely, under magnification if necessary.
Once the anthropologist is sure that the material is bone, they must determine whether it came from a human or a non-human animal. All mammals share a generalized skeletal template, meaning they all have the same bones in roughly the same locations: a skull, spine (which ends in a tail), ribs (which support the internal organs), and four sets of limb bones. However, the shape of the bones and the way they relate to each other, differ between animals. By examining the size, shape, and structure of a bone, an anthropologist can determine if it is human.