Bones in Forensic Anthropology

Most of us know the term “forensic anthropology” from our favorite crime shows, but few people actually know what forensic anthropology is, or what being a forensic anthropologist entails. Hollywood has always been notorious for bending the truth when it comes to the science and technology shown in shows and movies, and the case of forensic anthropology is no exception. Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist, author, and one of the producers of the popular TV show “Bones” may have helped to bring forensic anthropology into the limelight, but it’s not as fast-paced or thrilling as it might appear.

Reichs at the Bones 100th Show Party Photo credit: / WENN

“Well, everything we use on “Bones” is real – the technology, the methodologies, the terminologies. What’s different is that in real life every single case does not get solved. You don’t find that, you know, sliver of skin cells in an acre of grass that cracked the case open. You – we won’t make mistakes on our show like having your DNA results in 12 minutes, that sort of thing.” Reich stated in a 2012 interview with NPR. Reich also acknowledges that the advanced equipment shown in the Jeffersonian labs, while real, is not available to most forensic anthropologists, as in the case of the “Angelatron.”

Angela virtually reconstructs the skull and then face of Cleo Louise Eller in Bones season 1 episode 1 according to Brennan’s instructions using the “Angelatron.”

Reich says, “it’s a three-dimensional holographic reconstruction apparatus, and it does exist. Now, have I ever been in a crime or medical legal lab that has one? No. It’s expensive.” Of course, the admittedly drool-worthy technology isn’t the only area in which the show fudges the facts for dramatic effect. Even with a display like this, a forensic anthropologist can rarely determine race with certainty from only a skull– Brennan’s big genius trick from the first episode of the series. Certainly they wouldn’t be able to assume the victim’s actual appearance with such accuracy (though this, too, is an actual practice sometimes used in criminal investigations, known as forensic artistry). As I and the other students of Professor Beisaw’s ANTH 100 class saw for ourselves last Thursday, race is very difficult to assess, because it is a social construct rather than a scientific category.

The earlier seasons, and the first episode in particular, suffer fewer inaccuracies than later episodes (most likely because of the show’s gradual shift from cranial reconstructions to conspiracy theories). When Brennan and her assistant, whiz kid Zack Addy first see the victim’s body, the skull is in pieces, but the rest of the skeleton is intact, so Brennan’s analysis of the victim being “a young woman, probably between 18 and 22, approximately 5’3, race unknown,” is no major leap; as Addy explains to Booth, “epiphysis fusion gives age, pelvic bone shape gives sex.” Hey– those are both real methods of determining age and sex!

Now, most forensic anthropologists spend most of their time analyzing bones only to discover that it’s a bear paw rather than a human hand. Those that do see human remains rarely see them in the context of a murder investigation. Within that small group, it is even rarer that the forensic anthropologist is present at the scene of the crime. Brennan does her first analysis of the body crouching at night, in low light, at the scene. Sorry, for those of you who thought forensic anthropology meant palling around with cops and teaming up with a hunky FBI agent to form a crime-fighting duo. Remember, this is fictional. But don’t discount everything you see– as it turns out, some of the forensics in Bones are downright realistic! Who would have thought?

If you’re interested in learning more about “forensic artists”:

The most and least scientifically accurate Bones episodes:

And an analysis of the inaccuracies in the details of forensics shows:


Kathy Reichs The “Bones” 100th Show Party. 2010. WENN, Berlin. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <>.

Danna, Jen J. “Forensics 101: Epiphyseal Fusion.” Skeleton Keys. N.p., 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <>.

C, Crowder, and Austin D. “Age ranges of epiphyseal fusion in the distal tibia and fibula of contemporary males and females.”NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information, Sept. 2005. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <>.

“Angelator.” Bones Wikia. Wikia, 9 June 2008. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <>.

Reichs, Kathy. Interview by Ira Flatow. “Meet The Brains Behind “Bones”.” NPR. 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <>.

Cultural Ecology and the Anthropocene

“Cultural Ecology” is the anthropological study of how a group of humans adapted and how societies developed in the context of their environment; weather patterns, climate, native flora and fauna, available materials, and so on. “Environment” is divisible into three categories; abiotic, biotic, and cultural. The abiotic environment of a society includes land, water, minerals, and climate, while the biotic environment is the living things within the environment, such as plants and animals. The cultural environment focuses on the interactions of human beings and the development of societies. Cultural ecology is capable of examining both the effect of environment on a human society, and the effect of human society on its environment.


A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

Archaeological techniques allow us to infer what life in a society is or might have been; in the context of an environment one might infer how a society affected its environment, or why a certain society adapted in a specific way. Though this is largely used to study societies, it can also allow researchers to see how an environment, itself, has changed. For example, the changes in Haitian culture and environment. We may discern that Haiti was once lush and forested, and assume that the natives adapted accordingly. However, after the colonization of Haiti by the Europeans, the forests were razed to clear land for sugar plantations, and slaves from many African nations were brought to work the fields. Today, Haitian culture is comprised of the various cultural traditions brought by slaves from many different nations. As for the environment of Haiti, Haiti now has only 2% forest cover, and has lost virtually all of its topsoil, making it impossible to grow food, and causing widespread drought. As such, a staple of Haitian culture has become its dependence on imports for 93% of its food, and Haiti’s resultant poverty.

The changes of environment as a result of human interaction is the distinguishing attribute of the Anthropocene Era, a geological era in which humans have become so great a geological force as to cause changes in the natural environment on a global scale. Cultural ecology, in its study of human environments, gives us insight into what environments may have been like in the past, as in the case of the once-verdant Haiti. This enables members of many disciplines, archaeological and ecological, to study how an environment has changed, and determine how human action may have led to such changes. It also allows us insight into a society’s reaction to the changing environment—did they flee, adapt, or die out? Did they recognize the change as the result of human activity? Did they attempt to fix the changes? Cultural ecology can be used to study both the changes in an environment, and the societal reactions, allowing archaeologists and ecologists alike to study the development of the Anthropocene as a human-powered geologic era.

More Reading:



Cambata, Altaire. “The Global Impact of Climate Change .” Ecology, n.d. Web. <>.

Standish, Alex. “The Anthropocene: A Man-made Epoch.” Spiked.

Haiti Friends.

Gunn, Michael C. “Cultural Ecology: A Brief Overview.” University of Nebraska- Lincoln.