A forensic anthropologist uses his or her knowledge of physical anthropology in a legal setting. Forensic anthropology is typically used in law to help identify deceased individuals from remains that are heavily damaged or decayed. A forensic anthropologist can use his or her expertise to determine, for example, the gender, age, height, and ancestry of the deceased. He or she can also offer insight on trauma or disease affecting the remains.
In most cases, a forensic anthropologist does not spend all of his or her time working with law enforcement, but is called in to assist with cases when needed. Most forensic anthropologists spend the majority of their professional life in an academic setting. In order to work in the field of law, an anthropologist must have a doctorate degree at least, which requires a minimum of five years of graduate study. In addition, a physical anthropologist must develop expertise in the subfield of osteology, or the study of human skeletal material. Other branches of physical anthropology are more suited to domains including the study of disease in living patients, human evolution, or the study of the brain.
In addition to the help of contemporary physical anthropologists, law enforcement techniques benefit from the work of physical anthropologists in past, and their research collections of human skeletal remains. Some of the most important of these in the United States are the Hamann-Todd Collection, the Terry Collection, and the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection. The statistical analysis of such collections aids in the analysis of remains in a legal setting. Forensic anthropologists typically work as part of a team, along with homicide investigators, forensic dentists, and forensic pathologists.
The expertise of a forensic anthropologist is legally sufficient for determining age, sex, height, and ancestry based on human remains. The legal authority of the forensic anthropologist does not extend beyond this point in the United States. A forensic anthropologist may help determine the cause of death, though only the coroner or medical examiner may make the official statement. Forensic anthropologists sometimes employ more experimental methods, such as facial reconstruction, but the results of such procedures are usually inadmissible as evidence in a court of law. A forensic anthropologist may testify in court as an expert witness.