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What Is a Forensic Anthropologist?

Perhaps it's the career for you...

Image of a skull created by 'Flachovatereza', obtained from

So what is a forensic anthropologist?

Forensic anthropology has seen an increase in newcomers over the past decade, mainly due to popular TV series that glamorize the field. 

A forensic anthropologist deals with human remains in a medico-legal context. In other words, they use skeletal remains to answer questions and hopefully solve a case by assessing possible causes of death as well as the identification of an individual. 

Imagine an individual has been stabbed to death in a woodland and left to decompose. Five months later a dog walker finds some remains and contacts the police. No individual in the area has been reported missing so therefore the police need to gather as much as information from the remains as possible to gain identification. A forensic anthropologist is called in to do this. The forensic anthropologist will assess the remains by looking at identifying features that will determine the sex, ethnicity, and age. They will also look to see if the individual had previous injuries to the skeletal system which have now been repaired. What if the individual has a false hip? What if they had a previous broken Ulna? Examples like these reduce the pool of individuals that it could possibly be. Medical records can be searched through and finally, something will match a male in their 40s of Asian ancestry who had a recent fracture on their left proximal tibia and early signs of scoliosis! The forensic anthropologist could also tell how the individual was killed by looking at the damage different weapons do and matching them together with the individual's injury. 

This is, of course, a very simple example. Many cases take years of work to gain a result. It is, by all means, not a quick process. As mentioned before, many TV series's seem to glamorize the field by, for example, getting a DNA result blown up on a hologram in 0.5 seconds. Although many might realize this is just for entertainment purposes, many people do not!

Forensic anthropology is such an interesting field of work. You get to know so much about an individual without having the ability to speak to them. Bones record incredible details about your life. Stressed throughout a period in your life? Your bones will tell a forensic anthropologist through stress markers. Had a broken femur five years ago? Sure, the forensic anthropologist can tell. Had a poor diet when you were young? No problem, we know. 

Although it is fairly difficult to get into this area, it's well worth it. Put in the work and you'll get there.

So what do you need to become a forensic anthropologist?

I'm writing this in the UK, so of course, entry to this wonderful field is going to differ in each country.

In the UK, an undergraduate degree in a natural science is ideal. You do not have to complete forensic anthropology at undergrad level, as in the UK I believe there are only two courses (Liverpool John Moore's University and Dundee University). Although completing a course in a subject where you will learn about human anatomy would be great. Of course completing one of the mentioned forensic anthropology undergrad courses would be highly beneficial too. 

The next step would be to complete a master's degree. Forensic anthropology would be ideal if you did not do this at an undergraduate level. However many people take forensic anthropology at both undergrad and postgrad level. There are a huge amount courses in the UK that offer this. 

If you are really determined to become a forensic anthropologist, a PhD would be the best route to go into. Furthermore, you would also have to gain certification from the Royal Anthropological Institute. 

So, do you have an interest in human anatomy? Would you like to know more about the skeletal system? Do you want to bring justice to people's lives? What are you waiting for?!

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