What is a Forensic Anthropologist?

forensic anthropologistThe public has been introduced to the world of crime scene investigations through television dramatizations, and the role of forensic anthropologist is key to solving cold cases like the ones that are fictitiously portrayed on the small screen. The use of anthropological knowledge and expertise that is applied to identify physical characteristics about deceased persons for archaeological or criminal case investigations is called forensic anthropology. Most people already associate anthropology with the study of fossils, and the duties of forensic anthropologists serve to reinforce those views to a certain extent. Forensic anthropologists are usually employed to examine human skeletal remains of people who have either died recently of foul play or accidents as well as those people who have died under mysterious circumstances years ago. Here are some of the specific functions of forensic anthropologists, the type of education that one needs to enter the field of forensic anthropology and job prospects for these scientists.

Job Functions of Forensic Anthropologists

When archaeologists discover mass graves or ancient villages that might have several sets of human remains, forensic anthropologists identify the gender, height, ethnicity and approximate age of the deceased persons whose skeletal remains were found. They can also help archaeologists determine the historic era in which the people lived from their knowledge of osteology. Military departments use the expertise of forensic anthropologists to identify the remains of soldiers who were casualties of war and civilians who were victims of war crimes. A key challenge that these scientists now face is the identification of ethnicity for human skeletal remains because intermarriage has blurred the differentiating characteristics of Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid skeletal remains. Forensic anthropologists have been recently employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and local law enforcement agencies to determine causes of death of potential crime victims. While gender determination conducted by forensic anthropologists is only accurate for sexually mature adult skeletal remains, these scientists are able to discover if any victims suffered from broken bones or even diseases that affect bone structure. The science behind forensic anthropology is precise enough that practitioners often participate in court cases as expert witnesses.

Education and Training for Forensic Anthropology

The career path of forensic anthropologists is extremely challenging, but fairly straight forward. For example, students who are interested in careers in forensic anthropology must obtain undergraduate degrees in anthropology. Their choice of electives should include a generous amount of science courses like anatomy, biology and physiology. Students who want to officially hold the title of forensic anthropologists, support criminal investigations and court proceedings should minimally possess advanced degrees in anthropology, but most earn doctoral degrees in their field of study. Other types of professional development training and certification can be gained through organizations like the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

Career Prospects for Forensic Anthropologists

Besides law enforcement agencies, forensic anthropologists also work for universities, museums and research firms. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for anthropologists are expected to grow at a rate of 19 percent which is faster than the average rate for all jobs surveyed. However, anthropologists must have a true passion for their work because wage rates do not indicate that they would pursue the field of anthropology for monetary compensation alone. The BLS found that these scientists earned median salaries of $57,420 in 2012.

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The science of forensic anthropology is certainly not error proof. However, most murder mysteries do not remain secret forever when these scientists are on the job. Crime scene investigators can often uncover the likely cause of death for a cold case victim with the help of a forensic anthropologist who is trained to identify clues about trauma on human skeletal remains.