Transformation:  Embracing Change – Anthropology Section


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Source:  Angi M. Christensen, PhD, Section Secretary

Forensic anthropologists know a thing or two about transformation. We know it as evolution. Not only have we studied it as academics, we have experienced it as a discipline. We understand the driving principles and underlying forces, and we know the potential consequences. In the context of anthropology as a forensic science and the 2016 AAFS meeting theme, Transformation: Embracing Change, we know that (through selection?) those with the knowledge, skills, experience, desire, drive, dedication, and flexibility to adapt to our changing environment will survive, grow, flourish, and develop into a fitter and more successful form, passing our accumulated traits and qualities on to the next generation. Those who do not, will become extinct. And we anthropologists are survivors.

Although a relatively young forensic science field, we have already experienced a rather significant evolution in the past ~50 years. Beginning as physical anthropologists and anatomists who were informally trained or self-taught in forensic applications, forensic anthropology today (due to founder effects?) is a well-established discipline that has experienced a significant recent expansion in attention and breadth, facilitated in part by increased public, media, and professional interest. We have gone from providing the occasional biological profile and trauma assessment to offering an increasingly wide range of services including search and recovery of remains, determination of skeletal versus non-skeletal origin, determination of human versus non-human origin, assessment of forensic significance, estimation of biological parameters, trauma analysis, personal identification, postmortem interval estimation, mass disaster response, and human rights investigation. While traditional approaches typically involved a visual assessment and the occasional caliper measurement, today we employ a suite of sophisticated technologies and instrumentation including total station, geographic information systems, osteometric software, global positioning systems, digitizers, laser scanners, alternate light sources, infrared photography, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, microscopy, histology, radiology, stable isotope analysis, and radiocarbon dating. Coupled with this has been a significant increase in the number of cases we work, searches and recoveries we perform, testimonies we provide, research we conduct, publications we author, graduate programs we oversee, and curricula we develop specifically tailored to prepare students for careers in forensic anthropology. Moreover, forensic anthropologists today are employed in a wide variety of professional settings including universities, medical examiner’s offices, museums, government laboratories, and other national and international organizations. Forensic anthropology is clearly an extremely dynamic field and, like all good sciences, is in a constant state of revision and advancement.

The scientific, political, and legal landscapes in which we perform our work are constantly changing as well and we must adapt (through drift?) along with it. As a discipline, we have been very cognizant and proactive in recent years in keeping the science ahead of legal and legislative changes that impact the field. This includes increased attention to the validity of anthropological approaches in the wake of the Daubert decision, the formation of the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Anthropology to establish discipline best practices, and participation on NIST’s Organization of Scientific Area Committees working to publish standards and guidelines for the field. We must continue to be aware of our environment and active in these initiatives.

As all forensic sciences are becoming increasingly complex, we are also becoming progressively reliant on interdisciplinary interaction and cooperation which has also influenced the evolution of forensic anthropology (through flow?). We are becoming significantly less isolated, frequently working together with professionals and practitioners in other forensic and scientific disciplines to enhance our knowledge and achieve the most reliable results. This has included recent collaborations with chemists, biomechanists, skeletal health experts, engineers, document examiners, geneticists, and pathologists, resulting in, among other things, a vastly improved understanding of skeletal fracture mechanics, bone chemistry, child abuse, and microbial biomarkers. Through the continued exchange of information and ideas, we will continue to grow and improve as a discipline.

These forces will require significant work and changes (mutation?) on our part. As aspiring practitioners, students of today’s forensic anthropology will need to be prepared for education and training programs that are lengthy, specialized, and intense. Rather than simply an anthropology degree with a physical anthropology focus, students will need to seek advanced degrees that incorporate courses and training in osteology, biology, anatomy, pathology, epidemiology, research methods, evolutionary theory, biomechanics, statistics, radiology, photography, microscopy, legal procedures, and evidence handling. In the relatively near future, certification of practitioners and accreditation of the laboratories in which they perform their work may be required, which will demand that aspiring practitioners pursue and achieve certification and ensure that their laboratories and practices are compliant with nationally recognized standards.

Even those already-established professionals will need to adapt and evolve to remain viable. We all have very complex schedules and lives already: Teaching, casework, research, mentoring, administrative duties, families…and perhaps the occasional hobby or vacation? But we will need to make the time and effort to continue to improve ourselves individually and collectively. We will need to be proactive and aggressive about staying abreast of emerging research, policy decisions, and court rulings that affect our practices. This will involve significant professional development effort including meeting attendance, workshops, seminars, and self-study. Our graduate programs will need to evolve to meet the growing needs of the field and ensure that our students are well-prepared and employable. We will need to remain open-minded and prepared for the next challenge.

We cannot ignore the changes going on within and around our science. But we are familiar with change. And we know there is more to come. We will embrace it and evolve. We are, after all, anthropologists.