Virtual Forensic Anthropology Applications of Advanced Computer Graphics Technology to the Identification of Human Remains

Virtual Forensic Anthropology Applications of Advanced Computer Graphics Technology to the Identification of Human Remains

Stephanie L. Davy-Jow (Liverpool John Moores University, UK), Summer J. Decker (University of South Florida, USA) and Damian Schofield (State University of New York at Oswego, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-762-3.ch011
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Anthropology is the “study of man” and encompasses a diverse range of topics, including socio-cultural studies, linguistics, archaeology, and physical anthropology. Physical anthropology, or “biological” anthropology, the study of humans both living and deceased, can be further subcategorized into osteology, primatology, human evolution, and forensic anthropology. Forensic anthropology is the application of physical anthropology techniques to medico-legal settings. Virtual Reality (VR) is being applied to forensic anthropology in a multitude of ways to benefit research and teaching. Several large-scale projects have been launched to digitize, reconstruct, and disseminate specimens (for example, This chapter will begin with an overview of the discipline of forensic anthropology and discuss a number of representative applications of VR technology in this field that are changing the way in which case work may be handled in the future.
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Forensic anthropology is a very broad discipline, and can therefore be defined in a number of ways. Dirkmaat et al (2008) describe it as “...the scientific discipline that focuses on the

life, the death, and the post-life history of a specific individual, as reflected primarily in their skeletal remains and the physical and forensic context in which they are emplaced”. Anthropologists are often employed in scenarios involving severely decomposed and/or unidentified human remains. The varied nature of such circumstances dictates that the remit of the anthropologist is dynamic and multidisciplinary; one may work alongside pathologists, odontologists, police, archaeologists, and human rights organizations. The anthropologist may be asked to examine trauma, to evaluate skeletal anomalies such as pathological conditions, or to assist in ascertaining the post-mortem interval. The anthropologist may also be involved in the exhumation and identification of victims of mass disasters such as aviation crashes or atrocities of warfare and genocide. However, the most common part of the forensic anthropologist’s remit is to establish a biological profile of an individual or individuals through osteological (skeletal) analysis.

When establishing a biological profile from human remains, there are numerous questions that must be answered: Are the remains human? Do they belong to a subadult or an adult? What is the sex of the individual? What is the ancestral origin of the individual? What is approximate age range? What was the living stature of the individual? Do the remains exhibit any indication of interpersonal violence or trauma? Is there any evidence of illness, injury, or other unique characteristics that may help to identify the person? Are the remains of forensic significance or are they archaeological/historical in nature? What taphonomic (environmental) factors have acted on the remains since the death of the individual?

In recent decades, there has been a paradigm shift in the field. It has grown from a small group of experienced physical anthropologists primarily tasked with examining bones to a vibrant field of practitioners and researchers working to validate and improve existing techniques or to discover new ones. As forensic science and expert testimony in general has come under scrutiny and new legislation (Office of News and Public Information, 2010; Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 1993; Kumho Tire Company, Ltd. v. Carmichael, 1999)), the discipline has been faced with the challenges of meeting stringent scientific scrutiny where little quantitative data existed previously. Due to the mercurial nature of the casework undertaken by anthropologists, obtaining such data can be very difficult. It is practically impossible to undertake rigorous scientific study of the techniques that rely mainly on observational, experiential and pattern recognition skills. Activities such as estimation of the postmortem interval (time since death) and recognition of bone modification activities can be difficult to quantify, despite being a regular part of an anthropologist’s duties (Grivas and Komar, 2008). A Scientific Working Group known as SWGANTH has recently been established to address these types of issues (Christensen and Crowder, 2009).

Key Terms in this Chapter

PHANToM®: Haptic device, robot arm based - further information available at

Virtopsy: The application of medical imaging technologies such as Computed Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and X-ray to the standard forensic autopsy conducted by pathologists.

Osteology: The study of bone.

Maya: 3D Modelling software produced by © Autodesk – further information available at

Forensic facial reconstruction: The application of physical anthropology and anatomy to art in order to recreate a face of an individual based on cranial features. It is commonly used by law enforcement agencies to assist the public in identifying unknown individuals; Also called forensic facial approximation

3DS Max (also known as 3D Studio Max): 3D Modelling software produced by © Autodesk – further information available at

Craniofacial identification: The identification of unknown individual based on analysis of the human cranium.

Biological Profile: The estimation of sex, age, stature, ancestry and the documentation of pathologies like disease and pre and post mortem trauma from bone for the purposes of determining cause of death, as well as, identifying or learning more about an unknown individual.

Elluminate Live!: an online, educational and collaborative program that allows for real time communication for multiple users - further information available at

Physical Anthropology: A sub-discipline of anthropology that analyzes human and non-human osteological remains from the past and present to understand diversity, evolution, and speciation; Also called Biological Anthropology.

Forensic anthropology: A subfield of physical anthropology that applies human identification methodologies to a medico-legal setting.

TurnTool: Web browser plugin allowing 3D models to be viewed - further information available at

FreeForm® 3D system: Virtual ‘clay’ modeling system - further information available at

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