What is Forensic Anthropology? - Definition & Famous Cases

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Do you know what forensic anthropology is? Not only will you learn what this field is, but you will also learn about the many different famous cases it has been applied to.

What Is Forensic Anthropology?

Are you fascinated by bones? Would you like to help solve cold cases? Then perhaps you may want to consider studying forensic anthropology, a field that analyzes the skeletal remains of deceased individuals in order to help solve criminal cases. People in this field analyze a person's skeleton to figure out what gender they were, their probable age at death, when they died, how they died, and even clues as to the manner of death in some cases.

Let's look at a couple of cases where forensic anthropology has helped solve criminal cases, one from about 400 years ago and some more famous recent cases that have occurred within the last century.

The Case of a Dead Colonist Boy

Way back in the early 17th century, when the U.S. was not even a country, the first colonists were establishing the settlement of Jamestown. One day in 1607, as the records indicate, the colonists were busy planting corn when Native Americans attacked and killed a boy. He was hastily buried and it was not until 2005 that his skeletal remains were discovered. What did they reveal?

Forensic anthropologists were able to determine that the skeletal remains were of a male, about 14-15 years old. His collarbone was broken and an arrow would have been lodged in the fleshy portion of his left thigh at the time of death.

How did they figure all of this out? Well, the techniques a forensic anthropologist uses helps them determine all of this. For example, clues to the person's gender can be gleaned from the shape of their pelvis. A person's age can be determined by looking at how well developed their bones and teeth are. A skeletal injury devoid of signs of healing would indicate it happened close to the time of death. The fact that the femur (thighbone) had no dent from an arrowhead that was found right next to the femur would indicate the arrow lodged itself in the boy's muscles, which decayed over time but left the arrowhead near the thigh.

What's more, it was found that his quick death may have been a blessing in disguise in some respects. This is because the boy had a serious infection of his tooth and mandible (the lower jaw bone) at the time of his death. He probably already had trouble eating and experienced some severe pain from this infected tooth. Even worse, the infection would have eventually spread over his body, leading to a very unpleasant and relatively more protracted death than his ultimately violent demise.

Modern Cases

In addition to solving history's mysteries, forensic anthropology, and the skeletal analysis employed therein, is used to help put to rest more modern criminal cases. For example, forensic anthropologists helped identify the once hidden remains of the last imperial family of Russia, the Romanov family, who were murdered by the communists in the early 20th century.

In the 1970s, serial killer John Wayne Gacy killed at least 33 boys and young men. Some of the victims, as well as their manner of death, were identified thanks to techniques used in forensic anthropology. The remains of victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing as well as 9/11 were also identified with the help of forensic anthropology.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is pictured here shortly after his capture by U.S. forces.

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