Forensic anthropology is the examination of skeletal remains. This examination can be used to first determine if the remains are in fact human. Then the forensic anthropologist can determine the gender, approximate age, physical stature, and likely racial affiliation of the person in life. The examination can also yield approximate time since death, likely cause of death and any identifying illnesses or wounds suffered in life that could leave traces in the bone structure. This information can then be used to help identify the remains.
Forensic archaeology uses classic archaeological means for the systematic recovery of buried remains and other artifacts of the burial. Information can also be gleaned by the analysis of pollen, soil, seeds, and insects excavated from the site. These are all recovered and documented if archaeological training is used.
The main factors used in forensic studies are:
Dentition is the study of tooth remains. The analysis of dental remains can be used for several aspects of forensic anthropology. Dentition is used in conjunction with osteology for determination of age, sex, and diet.
In an adult human there are 32 teeth. On each side of upper and lower jaw (a quadrant) there are 2 incisors, 1 canine, 2 premolars and 2 or 3 molars (depending of wisdom teeth). In children there are 20 teeth. The breakdown is 2 incisors, 1 canine and 2 molars in each quadrant.
Ethnobotany is the study of pollen and plant remains from the past. This is used in forensic anthropology to help determine the time since death. It is also used to help determine the diet from an archaeological site.
As the prevalence of violent crimes increases, so does the need and use of forensic anthropology and archaeology. The archaeological exhumination of buried remains has been very helpful in many investigations and the information that can be learned through forensic anthropology has identified victims throughout the world. Not only has it been used in the U.S. and England for criminal investigation but it can also be used in situations with mass burials such as Yugoslavia, some South American countries, such as Guatemala and Argentina, and World War II concentration camps.
Criminal investigations are not the only use for this type of study. Information can be learned about past cultures(i.e. the burial practices) which can lend itself to understanding the likely social organization and sex differentiations in the culture. Forensic anthropology has been used for this purpose in the study of the Anasazi of the Southwestern United States. Another feature that can be examined with forensic anthropology is the health and diet of a culture. There are certain diseases that cause physical changes in the skeletal structure of humans. If signs of these diseases are found the general health of the society can be found. Also, the average age at death can be used to infer societal health. Some of the diseases are caused by a lack in nutrition, such as iron deficiency anemia, thus researchers are able to determine if the culture was receiving the proper nutrition in their diet. Another test for diet involves the use of atomic isotopes in the skeleton. This test is not a definitive answer as to what was eaten but it is useful in conjunction with other studies. Thus forensic anthropology/archaeology is not only useful in criminal investigations, but also in archaeological studies.
Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team- takes a little while to load, but worth it.
Forensic Science Resources- good explanation and links to other sites
OsteoVox, The Forensic Anthropology Web - mostly other links