Forensic Anthropologist Career Profile

The work of a forensic anthropologist, is like that of a detective trying to solve a mystery that’s millions of years old. This is one of the most technically complex jobs in the world. The forensic anthropologist’s job involves examining ancient evidence of human life and trying to unravel the history of individuals, communities and nations.

The Work Environment

This job is well described by its name:

  • Anthropology is the study of human beings.
  • Forensic science is the study of the detailed physical pathology of situations.

A forensic anthropologist is first and foremost an expert in skeletal science. The range of studies includes criminal investigation, toxicology, organic chemistry, and naturally human physiology. This work covers a very wide range of roles working in law enforcement agencies, academic roles, pathology labs, even war crime investigations. 

The study of human remains, some prehistoric, is a very demanding job. The forensic anthropologist has to be able to determine a very wide range of information from available remains.

Information may include evidence of:

  • Diseases: Many diseases leave traces on bone or any surviving tissue.
  • Diet: Deficiencies in diet often affect bone formation and structure.
  • Trauma from environment: Fractures, wounds which affect bones, and healed fractures often provide a lot of information.
  • Types of work: Some forms of heavy manual labor in the Middle Ages, for example, left scars on bone.

Case study:

An ancient hunter’s remains, dated as 5,300 years old, were recently discovered in a glacier in Switzerland. The remains were extremely well preserved. It was even possible for forensic anthropologists to discover the “iceman’s” last meal, which included a Neolithic form of wheat. The wheat had been baked, because traces of charcoal were found in the wheat recovered from the Stone Age corpse.

This is extremely important work. Although archaeology and other sciences are able to reconstruct some facts of human life from relics and artifacts, the actual biological information is critical. In the case of the “iceman”, for instance, the baked wheat suggests agriculture. That’s interesting, because there’s obviously not a lot of wheat grown on Switzerland’s glaciers. The “iceman” came from an agricultural area, and was clearly a long way from the nearest agricultural settlement. You see where the detective work starts.

Salary: Dependent on years of experience and types of employment. Median salary is approximately $50,000, although expert level jobs may be considerably higher.

Hours: Depends on type of employment. In criminal investigations, may involve irregular hours and court appearances for senior forensic anthropologists.

The Career Environment

The usual career track for forensic anthropologists is based on specialization, after the initial steps of qualification. The specialization is based on personal preferences, typical of scientific career modes. Lab and clinical work also provides a range of experiences which transfer across many areas of forensic anthropology. 

The specialization is also the extension of the fundamental forensic anthropologist role into the higher forms of the science, including research, consultancies, and policy advisory work to lawmakers concerning criminal law.