Forensic anthropology contributes to many types of criminal investigations – homicides, bank robberies, etc.
The primary tool of the forensic anthropologist is an understanding of human variation and its application to these cases.
Forensic anthropologists, with the tried-and-true techniques of skeletal analysis, have contributed for decades in significant ways to many aspects of law enforcement. What many people do not generally know, however, is ALL of the ways forensic anthropology can (and do) contribute to crime scene investigations including the application of crime scene recovery using archaeological techniques of site excavation as well as the application of biological anthropology to many different types of criminal investigations.
Forensic anthropology is actually a subfield of biological anthropology - a field devoted to the development of techniques to study and research human biological variation. Because these techniques are oftentimes applied to skeletons, forensic anthropologists generally are consulted on cases where human remains are recovered that are totally or partially skeletonized. The primary tools applied to skeletal materials from forensic anthropology include:
- age of the individual at death
- sex of the individual
- ethnicity (sometimes terms "race")
- sustained skeletal trauma
David Wellington Reed's remains were found less than 4 months after he was reported missing. David was 13 years old at the time of his death. Twenty-three years later, Pennsylvania State Trooper Robert Betnar was able to make an arrest in the case. The body was fully skeletonized and there were a significant number of insects still consuming parts of the bone's contents.
Trooper Betnar brought the skull to the Penn Museum to be examined and then across the street to HUP (Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania) to be CT scanned. As part of the examination of the CTs, we came to the conclusion that Reed had sustained a significant trauma to the back of the skull with the production of a blow-out sutural fracture to the parietal and occipital bone.
On gross examination of the skull of David Wellington Reed, it is clear that he sustained an perimortem fracture to his left zygomatic bone (cheek) which displaced the whole bone as it articulates with the frontal bone along with sustaining compression fractures on the body of the cheek bone itself. It appears as if he was hit in the face, fell backwards and struck his head on some object behind him.
All of these things can be key in criminal investigations especially when the identity of the skeletal individual is not known.
Forensic anthropologists, again because of the expertise in the recording and study of human variation, can also apply these techniques to other types of criminal investigations not involving skeletal materials. For example, with sophisticated video recording devices now common in many public locations (banks, convenience stores, museums, etc.), forensic anthropologists are often asked to analyze videos and still photos from these devices and to compare suspects in criminal cases to those recorded events of a crime in action.
A series of still photographs taken from video surveillance equipment at a Philadelphia bank. Examination of immutable biological features of the perpetrator allows comparison to the person or persons who have been accused of the crime. In this case, features of the ear and of various proportions of the face were used for comparison to a person who had been arrested for the crime.
One of the very basic differences in ear structure is in the earlobe. Most people have dangling earlobes termed "free earlobe". A much smaller percentage of people have attached earlobes. There are actually many points of comparison of ears to eachother. Some researchers have suggested that there are as many as 70 individual characteristics that can be measured or described and compared on the human ear.
The proportions of the ear are compared between a the person committing the bank robbery and captured on video surveillance within the bank and a person who was accused of the crime.