Forensic anthropological investigations – University of Copenhagen

Forensic anthropological investigations

Studies of human remains

The first step in a forensic anthropological investigation is to assess whether the human remains have police importance. Once the nature and date of the remains has been established, if they are a matter for the police the material is examined to determine the individual's sex, age at death, body size, characteristics and signs of disease, the results of violence, and the cause of death.

If the police consider that the skeletal remains belong to somebody previously reported missing, we try to make a proper identification.

This kind of investigation is usually conducted by a forensic anthropologist and a forensic pathologist working in tandem.

Identification from surveillance videos

Forensic anthropological studies are also used for the identification of living subjects in the case of robberies or other crimes, for example, where the perpetrator has been captured on camera or CCTV. In these cases our job is to analyse similarities between the suspect and offender.

Initially the visual evidence is reviewed to detect the similarity between general bodily features such as height. Then we look at specific traits. Finally, we assess facial features, completing a systematic review of facial features, such as nose shape and eyebrows, on specially designed forms and charts. The actual analysis is primarily carried out with the help of computer image processing.

Unambiguous recognition is not possible, but the analysis can support or dispel suspicion.

Skeletons found in excavations

The Anthropological Laboratory also analyses skeletal material from archaeological digs. This may include charred bones from a Bronze Age urn grave, or unburned bones from a common grave from the Neolithic.

We identify all the bones and the individual they belong to, and we assess the individual's gender and age. Any changes caused by disease are recorded. In some cases this reveals that several individuals were buried in the same grave, a conclusion that may add to the archaeologists' observations from the dig.

Our observations are included in an anthropological report prepared for the museum that commissioned the examination. We may agree with the museum to select some bone and tooth material for carbon dating, DNA or diet analysis.

It is often an advantage if biological anthropologists are involved in the dig, where specimens can be tested immediately the skeletal material is exposed.

CT scans and reconstructions

CT scans (3D X-rays) are sometimes used as documentation as well as for research and outreach purposes. Experts can use CT scans of a well-preserved skull to model reconstructions to show us what prehistoric human beings may have looked like, for example.