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Forensic Anthropology: Are These Bones Human?

The head of a woman facing the head of a skeleton

In a previous blog post, I showed you one way to determine if a human pelvis was male or female, using forensic anthropology techniques. And in another blog post, I talked about teeth and why they are important in forensic anthropology. In this blog post, I’d like to talk more about forensic anthropology and human bones. This post will focus on what anthropologists do when they find skeletal remains. The first thing to do is find out if the remains (bones) are human bones, and then you need to determine if they are from just one person, or if the bones are from multiple people.

Determining if Remains are Human

When Anthropologists find skeletal remains, usually the first thing to do is figure out if the remains are human. So how do you do that? Well, basically, the anthropologist is so familiar with the intricate details of each of the bones in the human body that they can determine if the bones they are examining are human or animal.

Let’s have you try to determine if some bones are human or not. Examine the two photos below. One is a human jaw bone and the other is an animal jaw bone. Which one is which?

A jaw bone.
Forensic Anthropology. A jaw bone.

Here are the answers. The first photo shows an animal jaw bone, and the second photo is a human jaw bone. You can probably easily tell the difference. However, it is not always that easy. Examine the photo below. Do you think it is animal or human?

A bone.

This is an animal bone. Were you right? Let’s try again. Examine the photo below and decide if the bone is human or animal.

A bone.

You may be surprised, but this is actually a human bone. It is the sphenoid bone, which is one of the many bones in the human skull.

Many times, skeletal remains are fragmentary, which means that the bones are broken into small fragments. This makes the anthropologist’s job more difficult, but a trained professional can figure out which bone a fragment is a part of, and if it is human or animal.

Below is a photo of a bone fragment. Can you determine if the bone is human or animal? And, which bone is the fragment a part of?

A bone fragment.

Unless you are an expert, this is probably rather difficult to determine. This fragment is human, and it is part of the scapula bone, which is the shoulder blade. A trained anthropologist can even tell that this fragment came from the shoulder blade on the right side of the body!

Determining the MNI

Once the remains are determined to be human bones, the anthropologist will determine how many individual people are represented in the remains. This is called determining the MNI, or Minimum Number of Individuals. So, how do you do that? Well, you first take an inventory of all the bones you have. And you compare your inventory to what bones a single individual should have. For example, most people have two legs (unless the person has a disability or amputation). The bone in the upper leg (the thigh) is called the femur. And a single person (usually) has two femur bones, a left femur bone, and a right femur bone. So, if the skeletal remains you found include two femur bones, but both are from the right side of the body, the bones must be from two different individuals. Therefore, the MNI of this set of remains is two.

Learn More

Want to learn more about forensic anthropology and human bones? Check out the textbook chapter, “Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology,” from the FREE textbook “Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology.”

Thanks for reading!