Some Limitations of Forensic Anthropology

By: Craig M. Pradarelli


Over the past 30 years there has been an increase in the use of skeletal remains to gain convictions of defendants in courts. In many cases highly trained forensic anthropologists are retained by the medical examiner’s office to make an assessment of the skeletalized remains. The forensic anthropologist should be able to give a good idea of the sex, age, height, race and possibly the cause of death of the person whose skeleton is before them. While this is true for a good many cases, forensic anthropologists are not always able to identify the person, let alone the cause of death of the skeletal remains that is the topic of their study. Dr. Emily Craig clearly admits this in her book TEASING THE SECRETS FROM THE DEAD wherein she says, “It’s so frustrating when my colleagues and I can’t identify a victim or find the crucial evidence in his or her case-but it’s so rewarding when we can.” While Dr. Craig’s statement is accurate it is seemingly contrary to the view of forensic anthropology that is seen in the entertainment world where the forensic anthropologist determines the identity of the skeleton within an hour.

As identification of skeletalized remains is in many cases is a rather difficult task for the most qualified of forensic anthropologists, nonqualified persons attempting identifications have led to some very embarrassing situations. Stanley Rhine, one of the foremost forensic anthropologists in the United States, relates several interesting stories about underqualified persons making determination as to skeletal remains. The most publicized case is when some individuals working in the desert of New Mexico found some skeletal remains. By the time this set of bones had been properly identified as a deceased bear the press had reported it as the remains of a missing 12 year old girl who had been kidnapped, raped and murdered. Dr. Rhine also related the story of a physician who called in an anthropologist to examine a human skeleton that the physician had found in his back yard. The anthropologist was quick to point out that this set of bones belonged to a turkey. These events are not unusual as upwards of 75 percent of the bones presented to forensic anthropologists are of nonhuman origin. The fact that a fully trained physician would mistake turkey bones for human bones speaks volumes for the necessity of a qualified forensic anthropologist to examine any set of skeletal remains before presenting their findings in a criminal matter.

While the television view of forensic anthropology is that this is a well worked out, almost routine science “most forensic anthropologists will agree that there is nothing routine in providing expert witness testimony in a court room.” Scott Fairgrieve writes in his book FORENSIC OSTEOLOGICAL ANAYLSIS. He continues by saying, “It is important for the reader to understand the limits of forensic osteology by examining not only its successes but also it’s failures.” These sentiments are echoed by Margaret Cox in her 2005 book FORENSIC ARCHEOLOGY: ADVANCES IN THEORY AND PRACTICE where she says “If lawyers have little or no understanding of archeological evidence, the data may be undervalued or even unrecognized. Equally, defense counsel may need priming in order to seize an the short comings in the prosecution.”

For those who are defense oriented the writings of Margaret Cox and Scott Fairgrieve present an invitation to further study of anthropology as if one where receiving an invitation to a formal affair. Clearly, they are suggesting to look at the training of the person who is giving the testimony. A person holding an M.D. may be very qualified to give opinions as to the cause of death where there are injuries to the soft tissues, but an M.D. is not trained in the analysis of skeletal remains. This is clearly evidenced by the physician who mistook turkey bones for human remains.

In the event that there is not a complete skeleton to analyze the determine of the sex of the skeleton is done most reliably from examination of the pelvic bones. The skull can provide good estimation of the sex of the individual, but this is not as reliable as the pelvis. More over sex determination is found to be very highly reliable as there are only two choices that can be made male or female.

Height estimations are another interesting topic. The most reliable indicator of the skeleton in life is the length of his femur. The femur is the bone which is found between the hip and the knee. In order to determine the height of this individual in life experienced anthropologists use a computer program named Fordisc 2.0 to generate a probable height from a databank of other skeletal remains. Fordisk will give an estimate of the skeleton’s living height with in plus or minus 2 inches. Estimations using the humorous, which is the bone between the shoulder and the elbow are far less accurate than those using the femur. The age of skeletal remains needs clarification when using the term age. One meaning is the age of the skeleton at the time of death and the other meaning relates to how long the skeleton has been dead.. The age at death of a skeleton is infinitely more difficult than determining the sex. With sex there are only two choices, with age the choices can conceivably run between 1 day to 100 years. Again, the skeletal system of all people do not mature at the same rate. Skeletal development is dependant upon genetics, sexual characteristics, nutrition, as well as environmental ad disease factors.

Determining the cause of death is a very difficult task William Maples in his book DEAD MEN DO TELL TALES mentions on three separate occasions that in over 50 percent of the stabbing deaths and shooting deaths there will be no trace of these wounds on the skeleton. Therefore, absent a confession from a defendant, is will be almost impossible to determine the cause of death in these types of cases. Not to mention that there are also postmortem injuries caused by animals and the recovery team as in the case of the exhumation of the victims of Alfred Packer where in Dr. Starr’s relates “The heat of the fiery sun was drying the bones and causing them to crack, creating the possibility of artifactual bone fractures that could be mistaken as having occurred at the time of death.” This warning is reiterated by Clea Koff in her book THE BONE WOMAN where she cautions that “It is important to use the probe with moderated force, or it can inflict postmortem trauma.”

For defense investigators presented with anthropological evidence is it important for them to study the credentials of the person giving their opinion as to the skeletal remains. As well as researching the science behind the decisions made about the age, sex, height and cause of death of the skeletal remains, such that a clear understanding of the limits of the science are presented to the jury.


Craig M. Pradarelli, BA, B.Sc. (M.D.2009) currently resides in El Paso, Texas where he is finishing his final year of medical school. His academic interests are Forensic Pathology and Osteology. He has a Bachelor of Science in Medicine from Medical University of the Americas Nevis, West Indies as well as Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Prior to his entry into medical school he worked for numerous years as a criminal defense investigator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has authored numerous articles and received various awards including being named as “One of the top 10 private investigation leaders in the United States” by P.I. Magazine in 1998. Currently he limits his involvement in the investigative arena to review and analysis of medical records and literature.

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