Forensics 101: So You Found Human Remains... Who You Gonna Call?

The answer to that question is obvious ― you call 911 (or Ghostbusters, if the urge hits). But the question really is: who are the crime scene investigators going to call? Sometimes the choice is clear ― the victim is fully fleshed and death has occurred fairly recently, measuring the time since death in minutes, hours or days. It's even more straightforward if the victim is found indoors in a scavenger-free area (unfortunately, any normal house cat or dog can become an opportunistic scavenger if confined for an extended period of time with a deceased human). In this case, any fully trained medical examiner or coroner is more than capable of performing the required autopsy.

However, there are certain circumstances where the medical examiner may decide that additional expertise is required. A forensic anthropologist will often be called in to consult if the remains are found:

  • a considerable time after death, allowing for advanced decomposition
  • in a location that promotes either accelerated decomposition or mummification of the body
  • exposed to scavengers, resulting in partial or complete tissue removal
  • already fully skeletonised, or are suspected to be historical remains
  • severely burned (Crow-Glassman Scale1 levels 3, 4 and 5)
  • after prolonged time in a marine environment
  • as victims of a mass disaster (ie. plane crashes, the Oklahoma City bombing or following natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina)

In Forensic Osteology - Advances in the Identification of Human Remains, Dr. Kathleen J. Reichs defines forensic anthropology as "a subdiscipline of physical anthropology that applies the techniques of osteology2 and biomechanics3 to medicolegal problems". In layman’s terms, a forensic anthropologist studies bone structure/composition and decomposition, and assists as part of the forensics team when investigating a death.

What expertise can a forensic anthropologist bring to an investigation? While not an exhaustive list, those skills include determining:

  • time since death, based on knowledge of decomposition rates in different climates and environments
  • time since death based solely upon skeletal structure when no soft tissue remains
  • sex of the victim from skeletal markers
  • age at death from skeletal indicators or using histological4 techniques
  • likely ancestry of the victim
  • childhood and recent geographic locations based on the analysis of the mineral composition of bone
  • method of death as a result of gross skeletal trauma (ie. blunt/sharp force trauma, gunshot wounds, dismemberment etc.)
  • method of death based on the analysis of macroscopic and microscopic tool/kerf marks on bone (this includes the ability to identify and exclude post-mortem scavenging)
  • victim identification using facial reconstruction techniques, either two- or three-dimensional

My own personal writing relies very heavily upon these skills. As a scientist and as a long-time lover of mysteries and crime fiction, I am fascinated with the science of forensic anthropology. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing a more detailed look at forensic anthropology as an aspect of crime fiction, mixed in with my regular blog posts that are more specifically related to writing. For me, the two go hand in hand, and I’m thrilled to be able to share this aspect of my writing with you. In the next Forensics 101 post, I’ll discuss how decomposition relates to time since death in a murder investigation. Hope to see you there…

         1 – The Crow-Glassman Scale is a standardized classification to define burn damage in fire victims
osteology - the study of the structure and function of bones
biomechanics - the study of mechanics of a living organism
         4 – histology – the study of the microscopic structure of plant or animal tissue

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons