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Lesson 4: Almost Famous

In the past few decades, forensic anthropology has garnered attention from the public, thanks to some well-known cases and popular television programs. With that increased renown, however, come challenges, which will be discussed later in the lesson. But first, some real-life examples of forensic anthropology at work!

Famous Cases

Assassination of John F. Kennedy: I'm sure most of you know that President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas in 1963, but what you may not know is that forensic anthropology helped piece together what happened. Initially, it was believed that the shot came from the "grassy knoll" in front and slightly above street level. When the bullet hole was examined, however, a large keyhole lesion was found, which suggested that the shot had actually come from behind and above--the fourth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, to be exact.

World Trade Center Attack: On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into New York City's Twin Towers, resulting in over 2,700 fatalities from the plane, buildings, and the ground. Fire and explosions from the planes, as well as the collapse of the buildings, produced extremely fragmented and altered human remains. It fell to NYC's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, to organize the recovery and identification of these remains--a rather unenviable task. Because the remains were so fragmentary, genetic testing was the best method of identifying victims. DMORT participated in the recovery effort, along with many forensic anthropologists, whose job was to corroborate victims' identity using biological evidence (to match putative victims' biological profiles) when possible, and to decide if skeletal material was human or non-human. This saved DNA technicians a lot of time, energy, and expense, because it eliminated unnecessary testing.

Hurricane Katrina: When Katrina, a category 3 hurricane, hit Mississippi and Louisiana on August 29, 2005, it wreaked massive havoc and resulted in extensive human casualties. Unlike after the World Trade Center attack, however, the bodies of Katrina victims were intact, though quickly decomposing because of exposure to the elements. Thus, many were too decomposed to identify using soft tissue, which is why forensic anthropologists were called in. They examined the skeletons to determine the identities of the deceased. Also, this was the first time that DMORT operated two portable morgues, because the bodies were strewn over two states. One final tidbit about this mass disaster is that the flooding dislodged bodies from graveyards and brought them floating to the surface, adding one more task for the forensic anthropologists.

Balkan Genocides: Within the last decade of the 20th century, the Balkans (former Yugoslavia) suffered three wars/invasions that resulted in thousands of deaths. The conflicts involved Serbian forces against Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians over homeland territories. Most of the forensic work focused on the Srebenica Massacre, during which 8,000 Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in a little over a week. In 1996, forensic anthropologists from all over the world were asked by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to collect evidence for war crimes. Once they had evidence, though, the forensic anthropologists began identifying victims and returning them to their families whenever possible. Until that time, forensic anthropology was unknown in the Balkans, so the results of the genocides were more global awareness and training in the discipline.

The Romanovs: During the conflict between the Red (Bolsheviks/communists) and White (Imperialist) Russians, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, including Anastasia, were taken to the basement of a mansion and executed in July 1918. But what happened to the bodies? Pro-Tsarists attempted to locate them but couldn't. Then, in 1991, nine skeletons were pulled from a bog outside Ekaterinburg, the city in which the Romanovs were killed. The graves also contained rope, fourteen bullets, and a jar that had once held sulfuric acid. Russian investigators suspected they might be the remains of the Romanov family, but, to be sure, they invited forensic anthropologist Dr. William Maples to examine the remains. Based on the biological profiles, the skeletons closely matched photographs of the Romanov family (except Alexei and Anastasia, whose remains were missing) and their servants.

Josef Mengele: He was chief medical officer of Auschwitz-Birkenau's "Gypsy camp," but he was more akin to a monster than a doctor. Over the span of nearly two years, he conducted horrific "medical" experiments on Gypsies, especially fraternal and identical twins, to test the limits of human endurance and healing, as well as to gain a better understanding of heredity. Needless to say, most of his victims died from the procedures, which led to the inmates nicknaming him "White Angel" and "Angel of Death." After Germany was defeated in WWII, Mengele fled to South America, where he lived the rest of his life, before allegedly drowning in Brazil in 1979. Just to be certain, the Brazilian government called in two forensic anthropologists, Drs. Clyde Snow and Richard Helmer, who examined the remains and determined that they were indeed Mengele's. The White Angel's reign of death was over for good.

Caylee Anthony: In December 2008, the skeletal remains of a young child were found in a wooded area of Orlando, Florida. Forensic anthropologists determined that they belonged to two-year-old Caylee Anthony, who'd been reported missing by her family in July 2008. Dr. Michael Warren, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida, was brought in by the prosecution to show that the duct tape found with Caylee's skeleton was potentially used to suffocate her by covering her mouth and nose. While his testimony did not lead to the indictment of Caylee's killer, it did support that she was murdered via suffocation.


Before I became a bioarchaeologist, I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. And when I told people that, they replied with these gems: "Cool! You'll get to carry a gun and find the killers." and "So, you're going to be just like Bones?" and, my favorite, "You should get yourself a cute partner, like Booth." Sigh.

I'll make this as brief as possible, so that it doesn't evolve into a rant. As I'm sure many of you know, Bones is a television crime drama that revolves around forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology at the fictional Jeffersonian Institute's forensic sciences department. Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan is the forensic anthropologist protagonist, whose osteological skills are sometimes superhuman. Considering one of the show's producers is Dr. Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist-turned-novelist, I was expecting a more accurate portrayal of forensic anthropology. I've listed a few of my issues with the show...

  • Forensic anthropologists don't carry guns or chase down murderers with the police. But try telling that to Bones, who joins Agent Booth on several occasions to catch the killers, despite not having much experience with guns (or being a particularly good shot).
  • Bones' survey of a crime scene takes mere seconds. Her blue eyes and sharp mind instantly notice evidence that require more than a cursory glance to see. For example, in the episode "The Man in the Bear," she looks at photographs of human skeletal fragments recovered from a bear's stomach and manages to quickly sex the victim based on thumb size ("...opposable thumb. Probably male, from the size"). It's simply not possible to determine sex from a thumb bone.
  • Later, she examines the actual skeletal fragments and determines that they are 60% of the arm of a heavily muscled male in his late teens to early 20s. Such a deduction in a few seconds is not only astonishing but also absurd. It's a very tedious process to identify a victim's sex and exact age based on bone fragments, because they must be reassembled in anatomical position first. In fact, exact age is usually impossible to determine. And, unless relatively whole bones are found, muscle structure probably cannot be determined either.
  • At the crime scene, Bones gives her surroundings a cursory glance and notices that the leaves are waxy from methane gas leached from the soil, which means the soil was recently disturbed. Then, she finds another body--presumably the reason the soil was disturbed. 

Yes, Bones is a fictional TV show that serves as entertainment for most of its viewers. But it intimates that forensic anthropology is much glossier than it is. In reality, it's gritty and time-consuming. It requires much, much more than a quick glance at bones and the crime scene to understand what happened. I have worked with actual forensic anthropologists, who are just as knowledgeable and experienced as Brennan, but they took time in examining the bones and/or fragments to create a biological profile. And, while forensic anthropology is an extraordinarily exciting field, Bones portrays that excitement incorrectly and out of a desire to...what? To make its protagonist look good? She's already brilliant and attractive--does she really need to hunt down killers, too? To make forensic anthropology more exciting? Or to suggest that forensic anthropology can solve any crime?


Besides uncooperative governments and fragmented and commingled remains, forensic anthropologists face legal challenges, as well. Whenever a forensic anthropologist touches human remains that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation, there is a possibility that he/she will be called in as an expert witness by the court, defense, or prosecution. As a result, all logs and notes pertaining to the remains, including a record of everyone who handled them, must be painstakingly accurate and thorough; otherwise, the forensic anthropologist or lab could be accused of tampering with evidence, among other messy, ethical violations. Additionally, only graduate forensic anthropology students and professional forensic anthropologists should handle bones involved in an ongoing trial, because only they are knowledgeable enough to testify as expert witnesses.

Speaking of ethics, some attorneys don't have them. They'll shamelessly court forensic anthropologists to influence them to testify on their behalf, even if the evidence has to be skewed in their favor. And if that weren't enough pressure, when forensic anthropologists present evidence that the opposing side doesn't like, they sometimes get verbally attacked in the court room. It occurred during the Casey Anthony Trial to Dr. Warren after he showed that Caylee could easily have been suffocated with the duct tape found with her remains.

In addition to legal challenges, forensic anthropologists must deal with the potential emotional trauma of seeing cruel and brutal murders.. The worst, I imagine, is having to examine the skeleton of a murdered child. I remember studying a young woman's skull that had been struck with a hammer 13 times, thinking how on earth someone--her husband--could do that to another human, let alone to a loved one. It's natural and beneficial to allow yourself to feel the anger and sadness, but, at some point, those emotions must be pushed aside in order to perform an objective examination of the remains.