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Lecture 1.




The University of Queensland





Forensic osteology (or forensic anthropology as it is commonly referred to overseas) is the science of identification of individuals from their skeletal remains for medicolegal purposes. Whereas the forensic pathologist is trained to determine the cause of death from fleshed remains, the forensic anthropologist is usually consulted once soft tissue structures have decomposed or been destroyed or mutilated beyond recognition.


The forensic anthropologist carries out the examination of any remaining hard tissues in an attempt to establish not only the identity of the individual but also the circumstances surrounding the manner and cause of death. If teeth or dentures are present then their evaluation falls within the scope of the forensic dentist.


The science of forensic anthropology encompasses the field recovery of partly or completely skeletonised remains and their laboratory management and analysis. It involves the determination of whether the skeletal remains are of animal or human origin; the number of individuals represented; the race, sex, age and stature of the individuals concerned; the pathology, injuries and anomalies that are present; the identification of unique individual characteristics; the estimation of the time since death and manner and cause of death; and the establishment of the individual's identity by exact matching of postmortem skeletal evidence with antemortem records or portraits.


Forensic anthropology as a discipline is a relative newcomer to the field of forensic science and was first formally recognised by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1972 with the establishment of a Physical Anthropology section of the Academy. The American Board of Forensic Anthropology as an accreditation body was formed in 1977 sponsored by the Physical Anthropology section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the Forensic Sciences Foundation which is the research and educational arm of the Academy. (Kerley 1978).


Within Australia and the United Kingdom, forensic anthropology is not as advanced nor as well organised as it is in the USA. It is not a full-time occupation of the individuals concerned. Mostly they are medical anatomists (osteologists) or physical anthropologists who have a broad interest in the origins and variability of modern man (human biology). Many have studied and worked with skeletal populations from the past and apply the techniques so developed to the modern forensic situation. Presently there is no representative body nor system of formal training or accreditation available for people wishing to work in the field of forensic anthropology within Australasia.





The history of the development of the science lies in the area of medical anatomy where the availability of collections of cadavers of known age sex race and stature made possible the establishment of skeletal collections for the study of skeletal variation and human origins and the development of osteometric methodology.


Within the USA, two major collections were established during the earlier part of this century, one at The Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio (3300 individuals) and the other at The Washington University in St. Louis Missouri (1636 individuals). These collections are named The Harmann-Todd Collection and The Terry Collection respectively in honour of the anatomists who initiated and continued the collections. The Harmann-Todd Collection is now housed in The Cleveland Museum of Natural History while The Terry Collection is located at The United States National Museum of Natural History within the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. These collections have been the mainstay of skeletal research within the USA since their establishment.


It must be realised that both of the above collections were derived largely from the lower socioeconomic classes within population groups that grew up and lived in the central west of the USA around the turn of the Century. They were not representative of those population groups as a whole nor are they representative of modern population groups. Hence the results of ongoing studies based upon these collections are extremely biased. Nevertheless they still form the basis for much training and research in human osteology within the USA due to the lack of a suitable modern reference collection. This problem is being tackled by the Forensic Anthropology section of the University of Tennessee where a computerised skeletal database of modern forensic cases is being developed for reference by forensic scientists. (Jantz & Moore-Jensen 1988).


A number of eminent American physical anthropologists who trained or worked on the above collections were eventually to become leaders in the field of forensic anthropology. Krogman (1935, 1943) and Stewart (1948) alerted their colleagues to the role of physical anthropologists in forensic identification. In 1939 the publication of Krogman's " Guide to the identification of Human Skeletal Material" established for the first time the formal association of forensic anthropology with medicolegal identification.


Cadaveric skeletal populations such as those of the Harmann-Todd and Terry collections, are composed of individuals mainly from the upper end of the human age range. Young adults and  juveniles are poorly represented. Hence the development of methods for the determination of age sex and race and stature from juvenile skeletal material has had to be based upon skeletal radiographs from living juvenile populations.



Much work was done during the first half of this century (Davies & Parsons 1927, Pryor 1925 & 1928, Flecker 1932-3, Francis & Werle 1939, Francis 1940) and many of their results still stand as the main reference data for the determination of juvenile skeletal identification.

Both World War II and the Korean War provided additional opportunities for physical anthropologists to develop techniques and skills in skeletal identification based on the need to identify American War dead for repatriation to the USA. The subjects were largely young healthy adult males struck down in the prime of life. The opportunity was taken during the skeletal identification process to make observations that resulted in the development of regression formulae for stature estimation for American Whites and Negroes, Mexicans and Mongoloids (Trotter & Gleser 1952 & 1958) and of standards for epiphysial closure and pubic symphysial changes with age in males (McKern & Stewart 1957).


In the immediate postwar (WW2) years the increasing contributions of forensic anthropology to the forensic sciences was becoming recognised by the legal profession and in 1954 Gradwohl's Legal Medicine included a chapter on "Evaluation of evidence from the skeleton" written by T.D. Stewart. The first major textbook in the forensic anthropology entitled "The human skeleton in forensic medicine" was published in 1962 by Krogman.


Since that time a plethora of publications and books devoted solely to the field of forensic anthropology has appeared on the reference book-shelves (Stewart 1970, Fazekas & Kosa 1978, El Najjar & McWilliams 1978, Stewart 1979, Rathbun & Buikstra 1984, Reichs 1986, Krogman & Iscan 1986, Boddington Garland & Janaway 1987, Iscan & Kennedy 1989) and the role of the forensic anthropologist has changed progressively from that of an advisor to forensic pathologists and medical examiners to that of an authority and expert witness in his or her own right.


The establishment of the Physical Anthropology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1972 and of the Board of Forensic Anthropology for accreditation purposes in 1977 saw the coming of age of the discipline within the USA and training programmes in forensic anthropology are now available at a number of institutions around the country.






The aim of the science is to establish the identity of an unknown individual from their skeletonised remains and if possible to determine the time and circumstances surrounding the death of the individual.





a)                  To determine:


                        - human or not?

                                    - number of individuals?

                                    - age of each individual?

                                    - sex of each individual?

                                    - race of each individual?

                                    - stature and physique of each individual?

                                    - the presence of pathology and skeletal


                                    - the presence of injuries and whether of

                                      pre or postmortem origin?

                                    - the possible cause of death?

                                    - the elapsed time since death?

                                    - the postmortem history of the remains



            b)         To match the above determinations with known details of a missing person.






            Certification of Death

            Wills, Inheritance & Probate


            Right to Pensions

            Right to Remarry

            Criminal Investigation

            Social Requirements eg Christian burial etc.




            Foetal to old age

            Single or multiple individuals, mixed or discrete remains

            Complete or incomplete remains

            Major tissues: bones, cartilage, teeth, hair, finger & toe nails, other soft tissue remnants

            Excellent to poor preservation

            Transformed tissues: physical, chemical, biological agents                                  

                        eg heat, water, soil, weathering, pressure, trauma

                        or mutilation, acids & alkalis, insect & animal



            NOTE: the particular problem of identification of multiple mutilated and possibly

            dismembered victims in mass disasters e.g. aircraft crashes, explosions, earthquakes






1.         Recovery Site Management:


                        history  of the site and discovery of the remains

                        environmental characteristics

                        search & recovery techniques employed

                        details of the remains in situ

                        associated artifacts


                        attention to mapping, sampling, recording, field analysis, packaging & transport


2.         Laboratory Management:


                        Registration – unique ID code



                        Laying-out & identification  of remains

                        Recording & Evaluation


                                    observation (visual examination)

                                    osteometry (bone measurement)

                                    microscopic examination

                                    radiological examination

                                    chemical/physical tests e.g. DNA extraction

                                    facial reconstruction – if complete cranium present

                                    videosuperimposition – if antemortem photographs available


3.         Missing Person's Bureau Search


            Personal Details:


                        medical, dental records & X-rays etc.

                        driver’s licence details, armed forces records

                        family descriptions, personal or school records &                                             

                        photos etc.



4.         Matching of Evidence


            Presumptive:     corresponding age, sex, race, stature,

                                                hair colour & type, location etc


            Conclusive:       concordance of unique features


                                                dental charts

                                                skeletal radiographic details

                                                injuries, pathology, anomalies


                                                DNA matching





Bass W.M. 1995 Human Osteology - A Laboratory and Field Manual. Missouri Archaeological Society Inc., Special Publication No 2 (4th edn.).

Brothwell D.R. 1981 Digging up Bones. British Museum of Natural History.  

El-Najjar M.Y. & K.R. McWilliams 1978 Forensic Anthropology.  C.C. Thomas Publishers.

Fazekas I.G. & F. Kosa 1978 Forensic Foetal Osteology. Akademiai Kiado, Budapest

Iscan M.Y. & K.A.R. Kennedy (Eds) 1989 Reconstruction of Life from the Skeleton. Alan R Liss Inc. Publishers

Iscan M.Y. (Ed) 1989 Age Markers in the Human Skeleton. C.C. Thomas Publishers

Krogman W.M. & M.Y. Iscan 1986 The Human Skeleton in Forensic Medicine. C.C. Thomas Publishers

Rathbun T.A. & J.E. Buikstra 1984 Human Identification. C.C. Thomas Publishers.

Reichs K.J. 1986 Forensic Osteology. C.C. Thomas Publishers

Steele D.G. & C.A. Bramblett 1988 The Anatomy and Biology of the Human Skeleton. Texas A&M University Press

Stewart T.D. (Ed.) 1970 Personal Identification in Mass Disasters. National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.

Stewart T.D. 1979 Essentials of Forensic Anthropology. C.C. Thomas Publishers

Ubelaker D.H. 1989 Human Skeletal Remains. 2nd. edn., Taraxacum Publisher.

White T.D. & P.A. Folkens 1991 Human Osteology. Academic Press