Forensic Anthropologists Have a Bone to Pick With TV Crime Shows

Author:  Belinda Ongaro

Institution:  University of Alberta

The descriptor, “forensic”, is a term whose genuine meaning has been brutally obscured by media misrepresentation. To forfend making an immediate association with TV series such as “CSI” and “Bones”, it is essential that the Latin origin of the word be taken into consideration.

“Forensic: mid 17th cent.: from Latin forensis ‘in open court, public”

Despite the common misconception that the term is inextricably tied to crime scene investigations, “forensic” merely implies that the work pertains to law and court matters in some form.

So if they aren’t out investigating gruesome murders as depicted in popular crime shows, what exactly do forensic anthropologists do? Generally speaking, a forensic anthropologist is responsible for deciphering details such as age, height, gender, ethnicity, time and cause of death, and other characteristics of skeletal remains associated with a legal case. This is achieved by means of an osteobiography, which looks specifically at skeletal anatomy, and also by considering evidence of life history; including broken bones, bullet wounds, weapon trauma, and the like.

 As a forensic anthropologist, an average workday could entail anything from search and recovery of remains out in the field, to making detailed analyses of material in a medical office, to delivering a court testimony.

Kathryn Waterhouse Ph.D. is a forensic anthropologist and professor at the University of Alberta. In her account of the challenges that her profession entails, a theme of “recognizing boundaries” resonated several times; not only in ensuring that all conclusions are objective, but also in acknowledging when something lies outside one’s realm of expertise.

“It's so easy to start postulating,” Waterhouse explained, “ and you always have to go – ‘no, what does the evidence tell me?’”

Oftentimes, a specialist’s input is called upon. Collaboration with forensic botanists (plants), odontologists (dentition), etymologists (bugs), geophysicists (eg. earth sediment), and Geneticists (DNA), depends on the material evidence that is available.

It is important to recognize that forensic anthropology isn’t nearly as glamorous as Hollywood portrays it.

“I had friends who worked on the Pickton case in BC,” Waterhouse digressed, “and they were 10 hour shifts day in and day out, and you just have no idea it's going to be that hard. And for them, they knew some of the context, so to deal with that mentally and work these long shifts six days a week, it's just physically very, very challenging!”

Needless to say, home support is essential. Efforts are currently being made to ensure that the mental and emotional health of forensic anthropologists is prioritized, as well as security in foreign locations.

Due to the specialized nature of forensic anthropology, demand for these services is inconsistent and typically delegated on an as-needed basis. For individuals who work as full time forensic anthropologists, they likely find themselves at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

The objective of CIL (or CIHLI, as it is sometimes referred to) is the recovery and identification of unaccounted for militant service members who were involved in major historical conflicts, including WWII, the Cold War, Korea, and South-East Asia. Putting a name to a face is a central way that forensic anthropologists provide a sense of closure for individuals touched by these tragic occurrences, and also how they honor the lasting significance of past events.

Human rights cases are an ongoing source of consulting work as well. Clea Koff is an American forensic anthropologist whose involvement in the United Nations-lead, investigation in Rwanda illuminated the hideous animosity that pervaded during the 1994 genocide. In her bestselling memoir titled “The Bone Woman” she presents her firsthand account of the grueling four-year task – sorting through corpses to distinguish combatants from innocent civilians.

According to Waterhouse, oppressive governments are often adept at concealing their dark histories, so forensic anthropologists looked to evidence of strategically bound civilians, deliberate slicing of the Achilles’ tendon to hinder escape, age and gender statistics, and other circumstance-based indicators to prosecute crimes against humanity in Rwanda.

When casework isn’t available, forensic anthropologists oftentimes double as professors at academic institutions, engage in day-to-day work at a medical examiner’s office, join research teams, or become involved in non-governmental organizations. According to, 80-90% of forensic anthropologists are not employed on a full time basis and, instead, primarily work at Universities and research facilities.

However, for those of you truly passionate about pursuing a career in forensic anthropology, do not be disheartened by these statistics. The deep-rooted value of this particular occupation resides in the societal and cultural benefits, which are immensely rewarding, according to Waterhouse.  

“I like the idea of hard work with a strong outcome”, Waterhouse expressed, “It’s not easy mentally, it’s not easy emotionally, it’s not easy physically, but the outcome is incredibly powerful.”

Flexibility and adaptability are crucial, given that the context of this particular field is continuously shifting, the environment drastically fluctuating, and the cross-disciplinary involvement inevitably varying from one case to the next. The academic requirements typically include a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD in Anthropology. Having a science background is also imperative and will generally earn higher respect in court cases due to the rigorous and detail-oriented nature of the field.

Although field experience is generally encouraged, local or overseas volunteer opportunities in forensic anthropology are essentially non-existent at the undergraduate level. This is due to the risk involved in allowing insufficiently educated or untrained individuals to handle forensic remains.

Forensic Anthropology is versatile, irregular, and rigorous. According to Waterhouse, it essentially strives to take the liberal, gray area of anthropology, and from that derive black and white, clear-cut evidence.  Waterhouse expressed that her interest in the field is largely connected to the role she play’s in the human healing process.

“For me, it's that for one person you could be making a difference. It doesn't really matter whether you know it or not ­– but if you've put a name to a face, if you've put an identity to somebody, it makes a huge difference.”