In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Forensic Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Laboratory Reference Works
  • Search and Recovery of Human Remains (Forensic Archaeology)
  • Mass Graves Investigation and Human Rights
  • Case Studies
  • Age Estimation in the Living
  • Expert Witness Testimony
  • Journals
  • Associations
  • Additional Resources

Anthropology Forensic Anthropology
Nicholas Márquez-Grant, Vail Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0143


Forensic anthropology (or “forensic physical anthropology,” some may argue) can be defined as the application of physical anthropology (its principles, theory, and methods) to the forensic or medico-legal context. This medico-legal context and its legislative framework will vary among countries. A forensic anthropologist (FA) will tend to assist the police, other forensic scientists, and forensic pathologists in cases of decomposed or skeletal remains where identification is challenging. Forensic anthropologists tend to be based, depending on the country, within police forces, institutes of legal medicine, universities, or museums; within private forensic science providers (i.e., companies); or other institutions (e.g., NGOs). The FA will attend crime scenes, work in mortuaries or in laboratories, and has a number of roles: to identify whether or not a bone is human (e.g., by assessing shape, size, etc.); whether the remains are those of one individual or more; whether they are male or female (e.g., by examining the pelvis); and what is the age of the individual at the time of death (e.g., by assessing dental and skeletal development and the degenerative changes in adults). The FA may also comment on physical characteristics such as stature (e.g., by measuring the length of a bone and applying a formula) and ancestry. Individual features such as previous trauma or disease might contribute further to identifying the deceased by narrowing down the list of potential missing persons to whom those remains belong to. The FA may also give an opinion on time-since-death (or postmortem interval) and on peri-mortem trauma when required. For example, is a fracture on a bone caused around the time of death or is it caused after death (postmortem)? While most of the analysis will be undertaken in the mortuary, at the crime scene the forensic anthropologist (together with other specialists such as archaeologists, botanists, and entomologists) will assist police in the recovery and recording of semidecomposed or skeletonized remains and assist in the interpretation of the deposition site in cases of homicide, suicide, and accidental or unexplained death. FAs may be deployed in cases of mass disasters (e.g., natural disasters or transportation accidents) and may be involved in the humanitarian investigation of mass graves. Some FAs are skilled in facial reconstruction and others in age assessment of the living where identity is an issue—in undocumented immigrants, asylum-seekers, or in child abuse and human trafficking cases. Finally, apart from teaching and research, a FA may be required to provide expert testimony in court. There are many challenges, responsibilities, and possibly disturbing situations, but the outcomes of a FA’s contribution can be crucial regarding the identification if the deceased, reconstructing memory in societies, closure for relatives, and bringing justice.

General Overviews

There are a number of texts that provide a general introduction to the field of forensic anthropology. Komar and Buikstra 2008 provide a good read and overall picture of some of the questions forensic anthropologists are asked to investigate. Warren, et al. 2008 also provides an overview of the context in which forensic anthropologists may be working in. Similar information is covered by the more recent text Tersigni-Tarrant and Shirley 2013. More detailed overviews of the methods employed, rather than the questions asked, are well covered and presented in İşcan and Kennedy 1989; Byers 2010; İşcan and Steyn 2013; and Christensen, et al. 2014. These provide some of the best and most up-to-date texts. A more in-depth discussion of the methods and their development can be found in Dirkmaat 2012. International perspectives as well as an expansion into forensic medicine and other applications of forensic anthropology (e.g., estimation of age in the living) can be found in other general volumes, which include Schmitt, et al. 2005 as well as Blau and Ubelaker 2009. Overall, the sources below mainly provide an awareness of the procedures and methods which may be helpful, especially to those wanting to learn about the topic, or those considering studying it and taking it up as a career. In particular they are good texts for physical anthropologists wanting to venture into the forensic sphere, and even for police officers and pathologists who may have an interest in the potential forensic anthropology has to offer, as well as its challenges. The references outlined in this section also serve as a good starting point prior to reading books on specific fields of forensic anthropology. Although there are a number of classical works from the second half of the 20th century, most of the literature included below is more recent.

  • Blau, Soren, and Douglas Ubelaker, eds. 2009. Handbook of forensic anthropology and archaeology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

    There is a broad range of topics within this book, from contributors throughout the world. Chapters are condensed and concise, providing an excellent read for those who have already started in the field. The wide range of contributions span from practices in different countries, to the history of the discipline, fieldwork (with some focus on forensic archaeology) and laboratory methods, as well as legal and ethical issues.

  • Byers, Steven N. 2010. Introduction to forensic anthropology. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    This book has been used by many generations of students. It has been one of the recommended texts by lecturers and is accompanied by a laboratory manual. A great introductory text, particularly for undergraduate students, and can serve as a quick reference guide (although practicing anthropologists may want to refer to other manuals and journal papers). Good range of topics which provides a flavor of forensic anthropology.

  • Christensen, Angi M., Nicholas V. Passalacqua, and Eric J. Bartelink. 2014. Forensic anthropology: Current methods and practice. San Diego, CA: Academic.

    A book which brings together current techniques with relevant Case Studies from a number of forensic anthropologists. Concentrating on the innovative methods used in this field, this is an exciting book for forensic anthropologists at any level, providing further knowledge of the field, especially relevant too for those already established in forensic anthropology.

  • Dirkmaat, Dennis, ed. 2012. A companion to forensic anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This is a companion to recent developments in forensic anthropology by a good number of experts who are at the forefront of their fields. In many ways, this edited volume serves as a technical reference book too for the practitioner, providing an overview of the current status of the discipline with a wealth of references. The chapters summarize research in a number of areas from body recovery to ancestry, taphonomy, and trauma. The volume also provides some insight into different practices in Europe, South Africa, and South America.

  • İşcan, Mehmet Y., and Kenneth A. R. Kennedy. 1989. Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York: Liss.

    A good critical overview of the techniques used in building a biological profile. This volume reviews the advantages and limitations of methods that apply to many of the anthropological characteristics of skeletal remains. This book is focused primarily on the study of human skeletal remains from the past (bioarchaeology) but is nevertheless part of physical anthropology and therefore relevant to the forensic field.

  • İşcan, Mehmet Y., and Maryna Steyn. 2013. The human skeleton in forensic medicine. 3d ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

    This is an updated version of the original Krogman book under the same title published in 1961, which could be recognized as the first publication of its kind in forensic anthropology. This classic book is still in use today by researchers, police officers, and students, and this volume provides a thorough update and expansion. It is clearly presented with useful images and diagrams and is a great learning tool for students and those wanting to become established in forensic anthropology.

  • Komar, Debra A., and Jane E. Buikstra. 2008. Forensic anthropology: Contemporary theory and practice. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is more than an introductory book, covering most aspects of forensic anthropology. It is well presented and provides clear definitions for a number of concepts. It covers aspects such as the history and development of forensic anthropology, its relation to legal issues today, and specific methods employed. Clearly well structured and well written and outlined, it provides a number of bullet points and images for clarity. A good introductory read for students as well as professionals.

  • Schmitt, Aurore, Eugenia Cunha, and João Pinheiro, eds. 2005. Forensic anthropology and medicine: Complementary sciences from recovery to cause of death. Totowa, NJ: Humana.

    A good book for consultation, including useful information for the forensic anthropologist consisting of a general overview that covers decomposition, processing of remains in the mortuary, and practical advice on dealing with human skeletal remains in forensic contexts. Many European writers are featured, resulting in a good overview of different perspectives and research areas within the discipline. The medical component of the book is valuable for those forensic anthropologists without this background.

  • Tersigni-Tarrant, Maria Teresa A., and Natalie R. Shirley, eds. 2013. Forensic anthropology: An introduction. Boca Raton, FL: CRC.

    This is a great overview book that examines the methods used in forensic anthropology but also taphonomy, mass disasters, and trauma analysis. Easy to read and well presented and appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists.

  • Warren, Michael W., Heather A. Walsh-Haney, and Laurel E. Freas, eds. 2008. The forensic anthropology laboratory. Boca Raton, FL: CRC.

    Focuses on the viewpoint of a forensic anthropologist in the laboratory. It covers processing skeletal remains, dealing with body donations, and comparisons between practicing forensic anthropologists and their academic counterparts. An interesting read for physical anthropologists in order to understand what the job involves and its environment.

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