Most people have a basic understanding of the forensic anthropology process from crime scene investigation shows. A body is discovered by an incredulous bystander, police are called, and the body is delivered to the medical examiner. With TV magic, the medical examiner has an infinite pool of wisdom, requires no outside help to identify the victim, has knowledge of every possible medical procedure on earth, and with their outstanding intellect, they identify the remains single-handedly.
While this makes for interesting character development on screen, in reality the process does not always end at the medical examiner’s desk. Intelligent people like medical examiners are able to identify the limits of their own knowledge, and call upon other’s expertise.
In my forensic anthropology workshop with Dr. Mann at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I learned that the process begins with three simple questions: “Is it bone? Is it human? What bone is it?” While these questions might seem obvious, they allow for the process of identifying remains to begin. A medical examiner or pathologist will usually be able to answer these questions. If the remains aren’t human, they might be sent to an animal specialist to confirm their origin. If they are human, further examination is required, and other experts might be required. This fits into the larger cycle of identifying human remains: Remains are found, they are recovered, then examined, hopefully identified, and returned to their family. Many experts can be involved in this process, and all play a vital role in constructing a full picture of the individual’s identity.
For example, a forensic pathologist might be consulted to determine more detailed information about the individual’s remains. They might have a specialty in identifying traumatic injuries, but no experience in soil examination, for example. They might consult a soil scientist from a university to determine the level of acidity and how it might degrade bone. If the bone has any kind of abnormality or evidence of medical correction, an orthopedic surgeon might be consulted to identify the skeletal condition, track down the hardware used during an antemortem (during life) procedure, or perhaps even identify the hospital where a procedure was performed. Forensic dentists, neuropathologists, and anthropologists are usually the most frequently called upon outside experts when a medical examiner or pathologist needs outside opinions and knowledge.
This process is very similar to the healthcare process of a living person. When experiencing a medical issue, a person will go to their primary care provider. If the primary care provider is confident in their own ability to diagnose and treat the problem, the consultations end there. But if the issue is more complicated or specific, the patient is sent to a specialist like a gastroenterologist or opthamologist.
This process is mirrored for the dead, with a medical examiner or pathologist being the primary point of contact, and all subsequent forensic specialists and scientists (like botanists and entomologists) aiding in the investigation.
The process of identifying human remains is filled with hyper-specialization. No single person can know everything about the human body and all that can occur to it. By working together, these teams of experts can provide a full picture of a deceased individual and give answers to their loved ones.