Category: Forensic Anthropology

Bones with Stingers

biological-anthropology-bs-2-hIf your still in high school with a interest in anthropology you should consider going to Appalachian State’s Forensic Anthropology Camp. I know, because I did

Because I was a late bloomer and didn’t discover my love for anthropology until my junior year, I was actually one of the oldest kid there in the summer of 2016. Just a few months before I would go to school at ISU. I also had to do the June camp that year, because if i went to the July camp I would have been to old to even apply. But luckily, I found the camp opportunity just in time to apply and participate just before I started college. 

APP State

When my mom and I first got there I knew I was going to have a good time. The campus was beautiful and the scenery was like nothing Illinois could offer. You could tell the people where as interested in anthropology as I was. And could actually have a conversation about something like balanced polymorphism and its correlation with natural selective pressures for the heterozygote of sickle cell anemia in parts of the world like Central Africa. And no one would bat an eye.

Throughout the week I worked with other campers, Counselors(grad students at the school), and the one and only Dr. Schung. A well know bioarchaeologists and professor at App State. And we got to work with real human skeletons and learn basic human osteology, like sex age ancestry, and stature. Also skeletal evidence for trauma, starvation, and infectious diseases. Once we learned all these techniques to read bones and someones life we where split up into groups and each given a case to solve and reconstruct the life and manner of death from our skeletal remains. And then present it to the camp and see how much we got right.


From the specific case we got we where able to tell our suspect was male. From the robustness of his skull and the shape and angle of his pelvis. His age based on his dentition, all his epiphyseal fused and advanced osteoporosis  we determined he was sixty plus years old. Based on his facial features he was of European dissent. And that he stood around five feet eight inches. Based on the healed injures like his Salter Harris Type 1 Fracture on his left Tibia, and the amount of muscle markings on his long bones suggested he lived a very active lifestyle. He also had DISH on his spine and some ribs which can happen at old age. The lack of trauma on his body and his old age we assumed he died of natural causes. We presented our findings to the camp and at the end like everyone else after we presented got to know the true identity of there individual. And we where right on everything except cause of death. He actually died of cancer which was present in the ribs but was hard to distinguish between the Dish which he also had. 

The FAKE remains we found.

On the last day ,which was the most eventful day for me, we went into the woods(just pick a direction) and was tasked with finding FAKE skeletal remains underground. We split up into groups again and was assigned a general area where the remains would be. one spot looked suspicious for it was sagging a bit as if the soil has been turned awhile ago. This is where we learned to the surveying and excavation techniques. Which weren’t that much different from the techniques I learned at camp CAA the year before. The biggest difference was the rate of digging. I was internally having a meltdown when I saw people thrust their shovel or trowel inches deep. Almost like they were stabbing the ground. This was very different form my time at CAA where the process was slow only going centimeters deep. Looking for the tiniest pieces of flint or pottery. I asked one of the councilors about this and she agreed, but in a forensic setting time was sometimes not an ally so the rate of digging was faster. I did go down once people actually started hitting bone and realized they should slow down a bit.

When everyone was done digging up there skeletons groups took turns looking at what other groups had found. But apparently someone had disturbed a wasp nest(yellow jacket) and when I turned to leave I felt an extreme pinching in my leg and when a look down a see a wasp jabbing its stinger in my leg! I’m not allergic but instantly I knew this would wreck the rest of my day. I told one of the councilers and it turned out i wasn’t the only one and we all left for the nearby clinic. Also luckily no one was allergic and so nobody needed any care. So once the professor made all the calls the the parents to let them know we left the clinic the professor now driving us and me riding shotgun. Luckily I made this crap situation into a positive. I had the rare opportunity to talk to her and ask her questions and also tell her about the CAA camp which ironically she brought up since I went there the summer before!

So the day wasn’t a total loss. And If anyone is serious about physical anthropology then you should consider this camp. It has probably the best hands on experience opportunity for high school students using real bones. You get to be around people your own age with the same interests. And the grad students and professor have a wealth of knowledge, With the grad students having immeasurable knowledge on what it’s like to be a anthropology student and what to plan for for your specific interests in the department.

Information: – For more details on this unique camp.



You Are What You Eat

hamburger-headThe picture might be an exaggeration. The isotopes in your body aren’t!

The study of isotopes from the departments of chemistry and geology have, in recent decades, helped archaeologists and anthropologists alike answer questions. The answers most sought after when using isotope analysis are about past civilizations and there past diets, mobility, and trade. And can get further knowledge about past peoples and the environment they lived and culture.

Most people who think of isotope analysis think of absolute dating, which are radioactive isotopes ,like carbon-14, which decay in predictable “half-lives” to something more stable. This can be used, particularly C-14 in archaeology, to date certain items like artifacts, strata, and fossils. Absolute dating was actually used to determine the age of the Earth!

But few are familiar with “stable” isotopes. Which aren’t radioactive and so don’t go under radioactive decay over time. Because of this we can find artifacts and plants and animals skeletons with the same isotopic value from when they where alive. The most common elements used are Carbon(C-13), Nitrogen(N-15), Oxygen(O-18), and Strontium(Sr-87,Sr-86). These stable isotopes can then be used to study artifacts like ceramics, metals. soft tissue, bone, teeth, plants and soil. And the reason for the funny title is isotope values in organisms are a reflection of the there geographic location and diets. So, you literally are what you eat!

Types of Isotope Use

Isotopes to Study the Environment 

Learning about the past environments of past peoples can help explain the environmental factors they faced. Like agriculture, trade, and settled or nomadic lifestyles. An example would be people who lived in arid environments have enriched N-15 values while people who lived in mild environment have a low N-15 value.

Isotopes and Diet

This method provides a very direct approach to discovering the diets of past people and civilizations. Through the use of carbon and nitrogen isotopes it can determine terrestrial or marine consumption and the different plant life.

Isotopes to Study Mobility

Isotopes Strontium and oxygen can be used to study the travel of people, animals and artifacts like ceramics. can be used to study the trade among past civilizations and peoples migration from different geographical locations for they will have different isotopic values.

Examples in the Field

The Very English Eater

arrowpointboy20composite20sharpIn The Jamestown Rediscovery Project in 2005 they where able to discover a early inhabitant of the town near James Fort. From the bones he was a young European man that stood about 5ft 8in. And when they brought his remains to to Smithsonian Institution they did a isotopic analysis using C-13. This information can be valuable when studying colonial remains for they can help tell there original origins and how long they have stayed in America. Because maize have a richer source of C-13 compared to the other plant life in Europe which are barley, wheat, and rye. And over time as a colonial eats more local foods and plant life changing there nutrition that there body transports which changes over time there bones which reflect a diet with more C-13. But the Isotope analysis of the young man reflects that he had a low C-13 diet which reflects that he had no local food in his diet and that he most likely died shortly after arriving in Jamestown around 1607.

What did Egyptians Eat?   

Mummy of a Middle Class Egyptian Woman.

In Katheryn Emery’s blog Bones Don’t Lie she talks about the Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics and whether depictions of Egyptian art really show how they lived. And based on the research gathered using human hair, enamel, and bones from a sample of 43 individuals from the Egyptian middle class. And based on the isotopic analysis using Strontium they consumed all local crops and meats. which makes sense since they where able to take advantage of the Nile river and delta. Which means they didn’t need to import food resources from other civilizations. Also based on the isotope analysis the article inferred that the Egyptian middle class had a ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. Which meant they primarily ate fruits and vegetables but also byproducts of animals like milk and cheese. Meat consumption was between 20% to a extreme of 50% of there diet. But this is still low compared to modern day where meat is around 65% of our diet. So they mostly kept to there greens.

Books and websites:

Written in Bone by Sally M. Walker – book about the excavation of Colonial James Town and Maryland. – Katheryn Emery’s blog – a good site about isotope analysis. Hopefully clears up anything that was confusing. I’m not the best at Chemistry.











The Graves of Research


Hold your breath, for we are taking a trip to the Forensic Anthropology Center of Tennessee University. Or more commonly known as the Body Farm. A 2.5-acre research facility where cadavers are placed outside in various crime scene scenarios. Some are in partial graves, put in the trunk of a car, or left in a bag above the ground.


The research is conducted for forensic science but is applied heavily on forensic anthropology to gain more information on decomposition of the cadaver and has the largest collection of contemporary skeletal remains in the United States. Where they can be examined for contemporary remains and traumas. The decades long research has proved fruitful as it helps explain and measure numerous factors about decomposition to help tell investigators time of death, traumas leading to death, and methods to possibly find identification of remains.

Bones on the table and in the boxes are part of the skeletal collection at Tennessee

To further the length of research after the cadavers are used in the body farm, they are then placed into the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection still located in Tennessee University. Now consisting of over one thousand seven hundred individuals. The collection consists of both sexes also with people from many different ages and backgrounds. The skeletal remains in collection have known age, sex, ancestry, cause of death, and body mass information. They are like the control to an experiment when forensic anthropologists examine unidentified remains. The skeletal remains are also used to for research purposes like the effects on the bones form obesity or diabetes.


The man that lead to this now widely known facility is Dr. William M. Bass. A forensic anthropologist that had many questions about decomposition and its many factors biologically and within the environment they were set in. And he wondered if it would help crime investigators. So, in 1971 he started his facility with his new position at the University of Tennessee. His Anthropology Research “Facility” was no more than a 16-square foot cage, originally used to keep pigs.  By 1987 the facility changed locations with more land and became the Forensic research center we mostly know today. The Body Farm was born and forensic anthropology was changed forever.

To peek your interest check out these: –  About decomposition and its relation to forensics science. – University of Tennessee’s website about there Forensic Anthropology Center.

One-on-one interview with Dr. Bass about the origins and upbringing of the Body Farm.


Interviews at the Body Farm and storage for the Bass Skeletal collection. Also mentions the CSI effect, look  it up. 😉




Identity through Art and Science

Facial reconstruction

What is it:

According to Caroline Wilkinson it is “the science of art building the face onto the skull for the purpose of individual identification.” Forensic reconstruction is a very complicated process, and the knowledge of what needs to be known is quite extensive. The education they need to know to be successful in being the most accurate is forensic science, anthropology, anatomy, and osteology. Also, patience and an artist hand won’t hurt either. And even though facial reconstruction is not an extension of physical anthropology, physical anthropologists have contributed or even incorporated methods and technique for the field. And over the years with better scientific methods developed has shifted from being an art with some science, to being more calculative, relying on science to get better estimates, relying less and less on artistic intuition. And contemporary forensic reconstruction have proved successful in getting an identity from unknown remains.


Popular British anthropologist Dr. Wilkinson. Her work on Robert the Bruce in background.

Facial reconstruction is used primarily in two fields of anthropology; forensic and archaeology. In forensics, it is usually used as a last resort to get a possible identification from the remains of a homicide, mass disaster, or genocide. In archaeology, it can be used when there are historic or ancient remains at their dig site. And from the skeletal, or mummified remains can make a face of the past. Facial reconstruction has become popular in museums and to the public because it can bring a more intimate attachment to the people of the past. Also with the current known knowledge of our evolutionary history the artist/scientist have been able to use similar technique and methods to reconstruct early humans and ancient hominins.

Methods and reconstruction:

Methods have changed over the years relying more on data and technology rather than artistic skill.

The first method used began in the nineteenth century by using cadavers to test the tissue depths by measuring how far the needle will go into the tissue. This was later viewed as unreliable because of the lack of fluid in the face changes the depth of tissue during decomposition, among other factors from measuring or decomposition.

The most recent and scientifically more reliable method for measuring the tissue depths is the Manchester method. By using modern technology such as CT scan or an MRI. They can get accurate data of tissue depths by using living individuals.

There are three types of facial reconstruction:

(a) 2D reconstruction. (b) 3D reconstruction, and (c) computerized reconstruction.

Three-dimensional reconstruction:


Uses clay or wax to rebuild face over the skull itself or a cast. A new way of building the cast is to use a 3D printer, which will do less harm to the actual skull. Then there are tissue-depth markers or rubber pegs placed on various places of the cast. Then layers are placed that are shaped much like tissues on the cast and are evened out around the rubber pegs. The last steps are hair and other accessories like jewelry or glasses. Still, there are reconstruction work that is guesswork. Like color of hair, skin tone, and shape of ears. Unless there are still some hair or tissue samples not badly decomposed to help the processes. This is last resort to get an identification. Mostly because it is time and labor intensive. Used to trigger a response of someone who see it and may have information.

Tw0-dimenstional facial reconstruction:


Can also be referred to as a police sketch. Similar to the 3D model they will put tissue-depth markers and then take a photograph or x-ray of the skull or cast. Then draw or trace specific features over the photograph or x-ray. This method is becoming obsolete with the advancement of computer programs for facial reconstruction first developed in the 90s.

Computerized reconstruction:


Computer software designed with programs for facial reconstruction brought in a new era for the field. Still implements the methods for tissue-depth used for 3D reconstruction. But unlike the 3D model it is quicker and fast producing. His doesn’t make it more accurate or exact than the 3D model, just an enhanced version to make quick changes and to make different versions quicker. Like Hair styles or accessories. But like the 3D model,  any evidence recovered like hair or tissue will make a better profile.

Real life Examples:

Bun Chee Nyhuis’s facial reconstruction printed in the newspaper.

A skull and 40 or so bones were found at a Boy Scout camp in Missouri. Along with some hair, and jeans. Based on the evidence recovered and help from a Forensic anthropologist (Dr. Michael Charney) they were able to say the remains belonged to a five foot, one hundred and twenty pound Asian women in her mid-twenties who had given birth to at least two children. Even with all this evidence they were still not able to identify the remains. So, as their last option they decided to reconstruct the face in hopes some will recognize her. After the reconstruction was given to various media outlets friends of her were able to identify her as Bun Chee Nyhuis. And through further investigation where able to charge and put her husband away for murder.

Elisabeth Daynes working on the face of a Paranthropus boisei.

Paleoartist Elisabeth Daynes is a French sculptor with a twenty plus year career now in human evolution. She has done hyper-realistic reconstructions of hominins from Lucy to archaic humans. She has gained global recognition for her work and her reconstructions are in natural history museums around the world. Her work focuses heavily on the skull as it is has unique features for every hominin. She also collaborates heavily on scientists like paleoanthropologists, forensic anthropologists, biologists and geneticist. As well as reads scientific literature for most she can do to reconstruct our ancestors.

if your interested in watching the process, view these videos

good example of how they work closely with other anthropologists and historians to get  better reconstructions of historical remains.

Watch “Richard III Revealed” on Netflix, and watch the recovery and facial reconstruction of a King by Dr. Wilkinson.

The case of Bun Chee Nyhuis made by Forensic Files. Can find on YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Books and websites:

The Bone Detectives by Donna M. Jackson- a short, but very informative book about forensic and physical anthropology.

Flesh and Bone by Myriam Nafte- a great and inexpensive book that real anthropologist use!












bones, Bones,Bones!!!


One important study that all Bio anthropologists use is the study of bones. Or the fancier term osteology. Osteology studies the growth, development, and variation in the human skeletal system. It tries also to explain anomalies, whether different variation is cultural or genetic, and observable pathologies. Most physical anthropologists need to use osteology one way or another. For a forensic anthropologist, it is there prime tool used. Using forensic anthropologists, I will show you what physical anthropologist think when looking at bones in the perspective of forensics.


If you never heard of a forensic anthropologist, no worries there are only about two hundred anthropologists that work full-time time in forensics! Most are physical anthropologists that work in academia or research facility that get called for their service from the coroner to analyze and observe the human remains. One of the main reasons for this is the need for forensic anthropologists is rare. Most human remains are not so decomposed to hold little other evidence or a form of identification for the remains. But because their services are rare does not mean they are irrelevant. They help put names identity to the remains of homicides, genocides, and mass grave victims.


Forensic anthropology is a specialized branch of physical anthropology that become expert witnesses ,who is a specialized informer to a case, that give testimony in court. And they analyze skeletal remains to determine the age, sex, stature, ancestry, and trauma. To apply that to their physiological age, based on skeletal observation, and chronological age, the actual age from date of birth, for further evidence to get an identification.

There are three important questions that need to be answered to determine forensic significance. Even if they sound dumb, based on the varies conditions bones can be collected these questions are essential.

That’s a human leg right? Wrong!!! It’s actually a bear leg.
  1. Are the remains Bone?
  2. Are the remains Human? If any remains have tissue on them or are mostly in one spot it can be easy to identify. But if they are sparse and spaced apart it can be difficult. One way to tell is to look at the microscopic structure of the bones.
  3. Are the remains ancient, historic, or modern? Can usually tell based on context of their surroundings, material found with the remains, or the remains themselves. If not they are not modern, they are not of forensic significance.

The techniques and knowledge used to solve murder cases are very like what other physical anthropologist use to examine ancient or historic remains.

Determining sex:

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The skull and the pelvis are the most used to determine sex. The pelvis is the easiest and most reliable to tell if they belong to a female or male. Women’s pelvis one important function that male pelvises don’t and that to give birth. And because we are bipedal and are born with fairly large heads the female pelvis had to go through some evolutionary change to allow the birth and development of children in their womb. So female pelvises are generally wider with an obtuse pubic angel. The sacrum bone is tilted back so it’s not in the way of the baby. And a very much bigger pelvic outlet to fit birth canal.


Male skulls are generally larger and more square than female skulls. And female skulls are more gracile and smoother along the bones surfaces. Male suborbital ridges (brow ridge) are a lot larger and ruff. The mental protuberance (chin) is usually more square and thicker in men. Mastoid process is thicker and larger in men. And male skulls have an occipital protuberance at the back of the skull.

Determining Ancestry:

Shoveled tooth morphology is common with Asians and North Americans.

Even though race has been debunked scientifically and most biologists and physical anthropologists don’t believe it has any scientific standing, it still plays a role in our society and politics. So forensic anthropologists are obligated to designate a race to the human remains to help put a potential identification.

But what it really comes down to is phenotype traits that are in high frequency in certain populations based on ancestry. Such as the shape of the head, nose, face, and proportions of upper and lower limbs. It comes down to ancestry and morphological traits by climate, ecology or cultural factors. And the most morphological differences are in the Skull.

The traditional categories are selections for three ancestors called Negroid, Mongolid, and Caucasoid. Just because there are these three categories doesn’t mean the traits are inherently persistent in these overgeneralized geographic groups.

Here are some general distinctions for each category

Caucasoid skulls: generally, have very narrow features. Like a narrow face, narrow nasal opening, and nasal bones above the opening. And a slight overbite.

Negroid Skulls : generally, have a round forehead, wide nasal opening, also wide nasal bones. And a slight to extreme overbite.

Mongaloid Skulls: have a flat face, no overbite, and cheekbones flare out more. Also common to have shoveling behind the incisors.



There are multiple indicators of aging and age. Two of the most commonly known are clues in human dentition and epiphyseal fusion of long bones.

Human Dentition:

We go through two set of teeth in our life. The primary or deciduous teeth are more commonly known as baby teeth. And our secondary or permanent teeth. The nice thing about teeth is they erupt at predictable rates. And can get an accurate age before the age of 25.


Epiphyseal Unions:

There are two main pars of the bone, the shaft and the epiphyses or the cap at the end. During paternal development, epiphyseal are separate and are joined by cartilage to the shaft. Then at different times in development the bones will ossify (make bone) and replace the cartilage. And eventually unite completely.



Use the regression formula to tell the stature of the remains. For this it is important to know the sex and ancestry of the remains for it is part of the formula to assess the stature. By measuring the stature, you need to measure the long bones like the femur or tibia by using a osteometric table.


More information on the remains is to look at the bones that have muscle markings. For this is the area of the bone where the bone attaches to muscles through ligaments. They can help determine whether a person is athletic or not, their handedness, and possible job they had.

Additional information:

If you would like more information on forensic anthropology, then i suggest to take a look at the following book and websites.

The Bone Detectives by Donna M. Jackson- a short, but very informative book about forensic and physical anthropology.

Flesh and Bone by Myriam Nafte- a great and inexpensive book that real anthropologist use!



First blog post

First blog post

Anthropology. What? anty-banner

Most people will go through life without understanding anthology, or even talk to an anthropologist. So, people can have a vague idea what anthropology is. Some will automatically think Indiana Jones, when he was an archaeologist and a bad one at that. Though I do like the hat. Or say yeah, I like bugs to, hearing entomology instead of Anthropology. For those and many other reasons I decided to write this blog post about what Anthropology is and its origins.


Around the time explores made transcontinental travels they made amazing discoveries in new lands that help us further understand our world in fields like natural history, geology, and biology. But when the explorers got to “new” lands they encountered people as well. People that looked, talked, and dressed very differently from there way in western society. And in an age of great discovery and further understanding Europeans tried to explain this, what was to them, phenomenon. And slowly but surely the discoplone Anthropology was born in the 19th century. Even when you look at googles “use over time for: anthropology” graph the word catapults from 1850’s to modern day.

Frank Foas. Considered the “Father of American Anthropology.”

Anthropology in America will eventually be known as the study of humankind, viewed at all perspectives of people at all times. American anthropology has become so specialized, we can also look at ourselves in many different but connected ways, it has been divided into four sub-fields. The four sub-fields in America are Cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and physical(biological) anthropology.

Margaret Mead. A popular Cultural Anthropologist. With a mother in the Admiralty Island

Cultural Anthropologists studies living cultures and will often spend long trips with cultural groups to gain more intimate perspective of these cultures. Archaeologists are like Cultural Anthropologists, but study the past cultures using material culture or more known artifacts. Linguists study language, its structure, evolution, and social and cultural context for language. Finally, physical anthropologists study the human evolution and variation, both past and present.

Even through anthropology is very diverse it is also a studying field that holistic as well. Unlike other disciplines, anthropologists study humans using a biocultural approach. Acknowledging the fact that there is a intercorrelation between culture and biology using scientific study.

Louis and Mary Leaky. Famous Paleoanthropologists in East Africa (successfully) looking for hominid fossils.

Now I will only be blogging about Physical Anthropology and its fields. If you think looking at one fourth of the sub-fields will be a light read, then you’re wrong. What makes physical anthropology interesting is its relationship with the other sub-fields and that it is science and social science. Also, its close ties to other disciplines like biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, and many other fields and specialties. So, I hope you enjoy my topics but more so the world that is Physical Anthropology.