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Human Identification Of Disaster Situations

Forensic Anthropology In Human Identification Of Disaster Situations

In order to understand the following article,  one needs  to know the following definitions AND terminologies:

Forensic Anthropology: applies the knowledge of human osteology and physical anthropology that focuses on the examination of human skeletal remains to determine the identity unknown skeletalised remains or human bones which include biological profiling for sex, age, stature, and ancestry/race as well as post mortem examination of the bones for  bone trauma and pathology / abnormalities.

Human Identification: It is a process to identify the identity of a person.

Biological Profile: It is a summary of the essential biological information regarding an individual. It generally includes determination of sex, estimation of age, ancestral affiliation  and stature approximation.  

Disaster:  According to International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), a disaster is a sudden, calamitous event that significantly  disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, economic and / or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources.

Mass disaster: A man-made or natural disaster in which so many persons are injured that local emergency medical services are overwhelmed and/or destroyed. In a closed mass disaster, the number and identity of victims are known, for example as in a plane crash whereas in an opened mass disaster, the number and identity of the victims are unknown, such as  in the bombing of a  building.

Mass fatalities: It is an incident that involves a number of dead bodies and/or body parts that exceeds the capability and capacity to locate, identify and process these human remains prior to the final disposition by the response agencies and available resources.  It can be an aftermath of a mass disaster.

In a mass fatalities related disaster, human identification is of  utmost important and difficult  issue to address especially when the scale of the disaster exceeds the capacity and resources of the existing agencies handling the disaster especially when it involves multi-nationale and multi-faiths.

Before going into details on the role of Forensic Anthropology in human identification of  mass disaster situations, one must understand the crucial task of a Forensic Anthropologist, i.e. identifying human bones, establishing  biological profiles of human skeletons / bones  as well as examination for  pathology or trauma of the bones.

In a mass disaster situation,  the process  of identification is an integral part of the examination of human remains,  which include documentation of  physical features and personal belongings, facial  photography, fingerprint lifting, X-ray imaging and forensic odontological examination. However,  in reality, bodies of a mass disaster are usually non-intact and mutilated beyond recognition. Occasionally, the bodies become skeletonized especially if the duration of body recovery is prolonged. Under such circumstances, the identification process mentioned as above are mostly not applicable. It is then necessary to acquire the assistance of a forensic anthropologist to help in identifying the skeletalised human remains or human bones.

Roles Of Forensic Anthropology In Human Identification Of  A  Mass Disaster

  1. Recovering and identifying human body parts and/or human bones at the scene of disaster

    The  first step in human identification of a mass disaster situation is to distinguish between  human reminas / human bones from non-human bones.

    At the scene of disaster such as  bombing, big fire, plane  crash, train accident etc., the chances of the bodies becoming  fragmented are very high. These body fragments tend to get  mixed up with artefactual  fragments from the surroundings and in  worser condition, the body parts/bone  fragments can be intermingled  with the environment. In disasters that occur  within isolated or inaccessible places such as in the middle of a vast dessert or virgin forestland, the human remains tend to undergo skeletalisation due to the long time period of non-recovery.

    Under such circumstances, one of the first challenge to the local authority is to establish a systematic  search at the scene to recover and identify human body parts/bone fragments  at the scene followed by collection  of these human remains  in a  proper manner. This is a crucial step in any investigation of a mass disaster involving multiple fatalities as any mistake can affect the subsequent examination process and obscure the identification process. Hence, the proper collection of evidence and documentation procedures at the scene are very important as disaster occurences are potentially litigious and subject to future legal proceedings.

    Forensic Anthropologist are trained in documentation of recovery/burial scenes  and identifying human body parts/human bones as they are  familiar with the features and morphology of human body parts / human bones, thus, the attendance of forensic anthropologists at the scene can assist the law enforcement agencies in the recovery process of human body parts / human bones.

    Figure 1: Example of a  mass disaster – plane crash involving mass fatalities.
    (Adapted from http://www.firstpost.com)

    Figure 2: Difficulty for layman to identify human bones at the scene. This is because, human bones sometimes looked like artefacts or synthetic materials.


  1. Process of Human Identification during Anthropological Examination

    The knowledge and practical experience of forensic anthropologists are  required if human bones/suspected human bones are found at the scene as the Forensic Anthropologist will perform detailed examination of these human bones or suspected human bones.

    During examination, the essential  question that needs  to be answered is whether these suspected human bones are actually bones or artefacts, and if these are really human bones.

    If the answer is negative, the examination will stop here and the specimen will be returned to the primary investigator.

    If the answer is positive, the first step in the human identification process is achieved and a  more detail examination will be carried out.

  1. Biological Profiling

    As mentioned above, the biological profile can tell us the basic demographic  information of the bone, i.e. sex, age, stature and ancestry (Caucasoid, Mongoloid or Negroid). With these information obtained, one can narrow down the list of missing persons and consequently make positive / definitive identification of the unidentified human remains.     

  1. Anthropology Examination for Traumatology and Bone Pathology

    Apart from biological profiling, further detailed examination is another essential aspect of anthropological examination.

    The forensic anthropologist will require to inspect closely all parts of the skeletalised human remains in order to detect any form of bone trauma or pathology. Detection of bone trauma and bone pathology that occurred around the time of death (perimortem period) are important clues in helping investigators ascertain the probable cause of death.

    On the other hand, detection of old trauma (e.g. healed fracture), unique features of the bone (e.g. polydactyly), abnormal growth of bone (e.g. bony spurs), underlying disease (e.g. bone tumour) and presence  of medical devices especially with serial numbers (e.g. knee joint  replacement), can be  used for identification of the skeletalised human remains.

    By combining all the anthropological examination findings, one can narrow the scope of identity of the victims from the mass disaster and subsequently  DNA comparisons can be done with the suspected next-of-kin  to confirm  the identity of the deceased. Eventually, all the identification markers of the human remains can be consolidated and the identity of the individual concerned can be finalised.

    In certain instances, anthropological examination findings  can be used to positively pinpoint the identity of the individual   by matching the anthropological examination findings with the antemortem data records of victims of the disaster.

    In conclusion, the process of human identification in a mass disaster involving multiple fatalities is a formidable task which require meticulous investigative processes by the various agencies concerned as any error in the identification process may cause catastrophic consequences.


  1. Bass, W., Human Osteology: A laboratory and field manual 5th edition, 2005
  2. Robert, J., PPT: Forensic Anthropology, 2014
  3. https://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/disaster-management/about-disasters/what-is-a-disaster/
  4. http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/bone
  5. White, T.D., Folkens P.A., The Human Bone Manual, 2005          


Last Reviewed : 23 August 2019
Writer : Chong Sin Leng
Accreditor : Dr. Nurliza bt. Abdullah
Reviewer : Dr. Khoo Lay See