Forensic Anthropology
A. Midori Albert, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Forensic Anthropology Home


Anthropology Home

Education and Career Planning Recommendations

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)


What is a forensic anthropologist?
How does forensic anthropology differ from
forensic pathology?

General information:

Forensic anthropology is a subdiscipline within the subfield of physical anthropology. Anthropology is typcially comprised of three subfields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, and physical (aka biological) anthropology. Some people still include linguistics as a fourth subfield, but more commonly this area is being absorbed by the other three.

Other disciplines in physical anthropology: genetics, human growth and development, primatology (study of primates), paleoanthropology (primate and human evolution), human osteology (study of the skeleton), paleodemography (vital statistics of past populations), skeletal biology, nutrition, dental anthropology, human adaptation and variation (to different climates, altitudes, etc.)--and this is just to name a few...

Forensic anthropology is an "applied" area. It borrows methods and techniques developed from skeletal biology and osteology and applies them to cases of forensic importance. Forensic means "legal."

Methods and techniques to assess age, sex, stature, ancestry, and analyze trauma and disease are generally developed to help anthropologists understand different populations living all over the world at different times throughout history. When we take these methods and apply them to unknown modern human remains, with the aim of establishing identity or manner of death, then we are practicing the forensic application of osteology.

This means that to be a forensic anthropologist, you must first study all the subfields of anthropology, at least to some degree, then get a good grasp of physical anthropology--especially osteology. From there, you can specialize in how to use osteology in forensic cases.

Those of you who are unable to find degree programs in forensic anthropology should limit your search to physical anthropology, then focus on osteology or skeletal biology, and finally look for people who do forensic cases.

How does a forensic anthropologist differ from a forensic pathologist?

Forensic anthropologists are experienced osteologists. Forensic anthropologists usually hold a doctorate degree (Ph.D.); but many have a Master's degree (MA) in anthropology; and only in rare cases do some hold a Bachelor's degree (BA)--these forensic anthropologists typically have years of extensive training, nonetheless.

Forensic anthropologists with advanced (graduate) degrees usually (but not always) work in an academic setting--at a college or university. This employment setting involves teaching courses, conducting research, and providing service--such as forensic consultation services. Other employment settings for forensic anthropologists can include work in laboratories (FBI, state bureaus of investigation, or private firms), or medical examiner/coroner facilities nationwide and worldwide.

Forensic pathologists are medical doctors, physicians, with a specialization in forensic pathology. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies (examinations of people who have died) in the endeavor to establish the cause of death. Causes of death may be classified different ways such as natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, etc.

Whereas the forensic anthropologist's general focus in on bones, the forensic pathologist's general focus in on soft tissue (including organs and body fluid analyses). Forensic pathologists hold a doctor of medicine degree (MD), which requires a bachelor's degree with "pre-med" courses, four years of medical school, followed by a residency in pathology, then further training in forensic pathology. Not all doctors who perform autopsies are forensic pathologists; however, in complex cases, forensic pathologists are usually consulted.

Dr. Albert's homepage