Forensic anthropology is a subfield of biological anthropology and an applied area of anthropology. Forensic anthropologists use skeletal analysis to gain information about humans in the present or recent past, then they apply this information within a medicolegal context. This means that forensic anthropologists specifically conduct their analysis on recently deceased individuals (typically within the last 50 years) as part of investigations by law enforcement. Forensic anthropologists can assist law enforcement agencies in several different ways, including aiding in the identification of human remains whether they are complete, fragmentary, burned, scattered, or decomposed. Additionally, forensic anthropologists can help determine what happened to the deceased at or around the time of death as well as what processes acted on the body after death (e.g., whether the remains were scattered by animals, whether they were buried in the ground, or whether they remained on the surface as the soft tissue decomposed).
Many times, because of their expertise in identifying human skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists are called to help with outdoor search-and-recovery efforts, such as locating remains scattered across the surface or carefully excavating and documenting buried remains. In other cases, forensic anthropologists recover remains after natural disasters or accidents, such as fire scenes, and can help identify whether each bone belongs to a human or an animal. Forensic anthropology spans a wide scope of contexts involving the law, including incidences of mass disasters, genocide, and war crimes.
A point that can be somewhat confusing for students is that although the term forensic is included in this subfield of biological anthropology, there are many forensic techniques that are not included in the subfield. Almost exclusively, forensic anthropology deals with skeletal analysis. While this can include the comparison of antemortem (before death) and postmortem (after death) radiographs to identify whether remains belong to a specific person, or using photographic superimposition of the cranium, it does not include analyses beyond the skeleton. For example, blood-spatter analysis, DNA analysis, fingerprints, and material evidence collection do not fall under the scope of forensic anthropology.
So, what can forensic anthropologists glean from bones alone? Forensic anthropologists can address a number of questions about a human individual based on their skeletal remains. Some of those questions are as follows: How old was the person? Was the person biologically male or female? How tall was the person? What happened to the person at or around their time of death? Were they sick? The information from the skeletal analysis can then be matched with missing persons records, medical records, or dental records, aiding law enforcement agencies with identifications and investigations.