Sometimes death investigation, particularly human identification, requires the expertise of professionals who can interpret clues derived from the skeleton. Forensic anthropology, a specialization within physical anthropology, has particular import when the typical means of identification are destroyed, decomposed, or otherwise damaged. The determination of age, race/ancestry, sex, and living height/stature can be assessed by the advanced anthropometric methods available in the discipline to aid investigators by providing an antemortem (before death) profile of the unknown individual. These methods are based on the forensic skeletal collections of leading anthropologists around the world, particularly in the United States (Ousley & Jantz, 1998). The skeletons in these collections have been meticulously measured and documented, and have been programmed into specialized computer statistical packages that give forensic anthropologists the ability to estimate most individuals’ living profile with reasonable statistical confidence. As more contemporary skeletons are contributed to this data bank, and particularly as these collections become more diverse in their sampling, the statistical confidence of these practitioners will be enhanced.
Beyond this profile, the physical examination of the skeleton can reveal injuries, damage or wear by occupational stress, unique genetic variations, surgical modifications, and an estimate of time since those events that all can assist in identification. For example, someone who broke his or her forearm 2 months before death will show evidence of trauma and healing in the ulna or radius in that arm. The healing process comes to a stop once a person dies, so this evidence gets frozen in time, so to speak. Evidence of perimortem (around the moment of death) trauma to the skeleton may also be helpful to investigators in determining the circumstances of death. In fact, the timing of injuries can be imperative in determining wrongdoing in homicide cases (Sauer, 1998).
In contemporary times, forensic anthropologists have been key players in the investigation of mass disasters and mass graves. These individuals are highly trained in the gentle excavation and analysis of skeletal remains in many different environments. In fact, one of the leading research programs in the world—the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee—has made many contributions to scholarly literature on the impact of environmental and circumstantial factors on the human skeleton. This literature continues to aid forensic anthropologists in the field as they travel to distant corners of the globe in which different climates, soils, environmental factors such as acid rain and salt water, and so much more have differential impacts on skeletal remains over time.