What is it about?

Human remains found at crime scenes are typically under the jurisdiction of law enforcement officers, county coroners, or medical examiners (depending on local authorities) who may typically rely on a licensed physician to perform an autopsy. Physicians, including pathologists board-certified in forensics, have limited training in advanced human skeletal anatomy. In contrast, forensic anthropologists are highly trained to identify fragmented bones and teeth. These skills are crucial to recovering small bones and fragments at a crime scene, interpreting variability of bony features to help identify the remains, and interpreting damage to bones, which may help determine how the person died. Our study is the first to examine whether expertise is required by U.S. state laws and regulations for recovering and analyzing human skeletal remains from either archaeological sites or modern forensic cases. We searched professional legal databases for all U.S. states and territories to identify whether expertise is mandated by law to handle such remains. Our results showed that in all states, human remains from modern cemeteries, archaeological sites, and crime scenes are protected by laws to prevent desecration and ensure proper investigation by coroners, law enforcement, medical examiners, or archaeologists. But when “human remains” are reduced to bones and teeth, through decomposition, fire, or other means, laws seldom require that an expert in human skeletal remains be consulted. Our review found that only 19 states have laws requiring special education in order to analyze ancient skeletal remains. For human skeletal remains found at a crime scene, only Texas has a law requiring someone with a doctorate in anthropology or a related field to assist the investigation. A few states, like Washington and Louisiana, have State Forensic Anthropologists who have doctoral degrees and are board-certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, though these qualifications are not legally mandated. Other states, like Tennessee and Florida, have multiple board-certified forensic anthropologists employed by medical examiners and universities, available to assist death investigations throughout the state. These specialists have been routinely consulted in these states for decades, regardless of formal laws.

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Why is it important?

Our study shows that human skeletal expertise is often legally mandated for handling ancient human remains from archaeological sites across the United States but not at most modern crime scenes. This research highlights that skeletal expertise is recognized as a necessary skill that benefits archaeological investigations, while crime scene investigators and licensed pathologists are assumed to have the proper skills to handle forensic cases because they are legally responsible for the investigation. We recommend that human skeletal experts who also have training in crime scene investigation and forensic science should routinely be involved in any forensic case that involves skeletal remains to guarantee higher quality results to aid in identifying the dead. Such expertise can also be brought to bear for recovering and identifying potentially valuable evidence, finding closure for loved ones, and seeing that justice is served. For more information about forensic anthropology, death investigation, and how to contact a skeletal expert in your area, please go to https://www.theabfa.org/.


I have worked in bioarchaeology (the excavation and study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites) and consulted on forensic cases in different states and learned decades ago that local laws regarding how human remains should be handled are varied. I have also taught clinical anatomy to medical students at different schools over three decades, and I know that most physicians learn very little about the human skeleton, especially bone identification and variability in structure. Our research highlights that forensic anthropologists, who specialize in the study of human skeletons in the context of modern criminal investigation, are vetted experts who should be involved in relevant cases in all states, despite how local laws define legal responsibility. Modern forensic cases should be handled by experts, as acknowledged by laws that require such expertise for handling ancient remains.

Melinda Carter
Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine

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This page is a summary of: Review of United States laws pertaining to the recovery and analysis of human skeletal remains, Journal of Forensic Sciences, July 2022, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/1556-4029.15082.
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