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Identification In Forensic Anthropology


Figure1: Examples of Forensic Anthropology cases

When autopsy is being mentioned, the first thing that springs to one’s mind will be the examination on a fresh body. But, have you ever wondered how human bones and skeletons are being examined? It is no other than using the knowledge and skills in Forensic Anthropology.

Definition of Forensic Anthropology

Before elaborating furtherin the identification process of Forensic Anthropology, it is important to understand the term Forensic Anthropology:

  • Forensic : pertaining to the court of law or in layman term is known as police cases.
  • Anthropology: according to American Anthropological Association (AAA), it is a study of human, past and present. It is divided into four main categories:
    • Sociocultural Anthropology

      It is associated with examination and comparing of social patterns and cultures practices in people from different communities, particularly how they organize, govern, and create an entity. It focuses on the progresses and changes that happen within and among of the societies in the health, economy, ecology and environment, education and agriculture sectors.

    • Biological/Physical Anthropology

      It is a study of human adaptation in various environments, looking into especially the evolution and variation of the human bones from the prehistoric times until the present. To understand this, it combines the studies of primatology (study of primates), paleoanthropology, bioarchaelogy (prehistoric people), biology and genetics.

      In addition, Physical Anthropology deals with the skills and techniques in establishing the age, sex, ancestry, stature, handedness, etc. and the manner of death in skeletal remains.

  • Archaeology

    This field studies people and cultures from very deep beginning to the recent pass, through the analysis of material remains like hunting tools, kitchen appliances, weapons etc, and including the surrounding architecture and landscape.

  • Linguistic Anthropology

    As the name reflects, it is a study on languages and its influences in human social life. It analyses and formulates the ways of communication practiced since the existence of human beings. From the languages, it studies the social changes that happen within and amongst the communities.

Forensic Anthropology is in fact a branch of the field of Physical Anthropology, with the critical difference being that Forensic Anthropology is mainly concern with skeletal remains of modern times. In other words, Forensic Anthropology is the application of Physical Anthropology and human osteology in investigating police cases involving human remains/bones/skeletons. In the field of Forensic Anthropology, ancient and historical human bones are normally not in the scope of interest.

Meanwhile, Forensic Anthropologist is the person, who is trained in performing examination on human bones. Besides Anthropologist with medical background, individuals from scientific or archaeology disciplines can be trained as a Forensic Anthropologist.

It is not difficult to determine the cause and manner of death for the fresh body because the soft tissues, organs and body systems can still be examined in detail. On the other hand, if the dead body encountered decomposed, partially skeletonised, fully skeletonised or in fragmented bone pieces, determining the cause and manner of death will pose some difficulties. This is because there are no more soft tissues or organs to be examined. In this situation, the expertise and experience of a Forensic Anthropologist will be needed.

Roles of Forensic Anthropologist

The primary role of a Forensic Anthropologist is to examine the human remains/bones/skeletons for the following information:

  • To examine for any bone trauma

    Forensic Anthropologist will examine for any injuries found on the human remains/bones/skeletons, in order to determine the cause and manner of death. If injuries are found, he/she must try his/her best to discover whether the injuries had happened before, during and/or after death as well as ascertain the probable type of weapon used. This information is very important for the investigating police officer(s) to proceed with the investigations of the crime/case.

  • To examine for any bone pathologies or abnormalities

    Bone related disease is another condition that Forensic Anthropologist needs to deal with. He/she has to identify the diseases affected the bones such as congenital dislocation, metabolic disorders, osteoarthritis, osteomyelitis, etc. This is to find out if the bone pathologies were the causative or contributing factor in the death.

    Bone abnormality refer to a condition where the size, shape and growth rate of a bone are away from the normal range. For example, bending of the femur (bone of thigh) or indentation of the facial bone, that can occur at birth (congenital) or happen later in life during the growing period. Forensic Anthropologist should be able to differentiate these abnormalities from pathologies as to make a better evaluation on the probable cause and manner of death.

  • To examine for its biological profile (sex, age, ancestry and stature)

    Most of the time, human remains/bones/skeletons are of unknown identity. Thus, it is of utmost importance to identify these human bones/skeleton, apart from finding its cause and manner of death. Biological profiling is routinely done for all the Forensic Anthropology cases, which comprise of determination of sex, estimation of age, affiliation of ancestry and estimation of stature. The process of biological profiling will help narrow down the scope of missing person and hence increase the probability of identifying the unknown bones / skeleton.

Biological Profile vs DNA Analysis

DNA analysis is a scientific and definitive modality in identifying an unknown person. But one must understand that DNA analysis is an expensive procedure and requires family members with blood relation to be available for DNA comparison, and expertise in the field of forensic genetics.

Significance of Forensic Anthropology

  • To ascertain the cause of death and manner of death of human remains/bones/skeletons.
  • To identify the human remains/bones/skeleton.

Forensic Anthropology Service in Malaysia

In Malaysia, this service is offered by the National Institute of Forensic Medicine (NIFM) that is based in Kuala Lumpur Hospital. This service is still in its infant stage, with only two Forensic Pathologist specific in forensic anthropology and basic facilities for bone examination.

Apart from the roles as described above, they will also being called for Forensic Anthropology Service also encompasses clandestine grave excavation and recovery of scattered human bones and skeletal remains at the scene. They are assisted by Medical Officers, Forensic Scientific Officers and Assistant Medical Officers.

Due to the insufficiency of experts and the increasing crime rate notably involving human remains/bones/skeletal remains, the demand for this service is greatly in need. Meanwhile, the increasing population of foreigners in Malaysia, from all over the world, either legally or illegally has made the task of Forensic Anthropologist more challenging when encountering forensic anthropology cases involving these foreigners.

With the current and foreseeable challenges ahead, NIFM is doubling its efforts in upgrading this service, with the vision of leading this of expertise in the South East Asian Region.


  1. American Anthropology Assocaition. What is Anthropology dari http://www.aaanet.org/about/WhatisAnthropology.cfm
  2. Institut Perubatan Forensik Negara. Forensik Antropologi dari http://ipfn.moh.gov.my/modules/mastop_publish/?tac=Forensik_Antropologi


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