Skip to page content

Investigating forensics

Investigating forensics

Glossary

 Resources / Glossary

Anatomical Position

The position of a body so that it is lying on the back, with legs and arms spread and palms facing up. In this position, each bone is visible without any overlap and a visual inventory of the remains can be made.


Ancestry

Refers to the genetic heritage of an individual. Ancestry is sometimes confused with “race”, but anthropologists prefer not to use this term because ‘races’ do not exist in the biological sense. Human populations do not exist as distinct groups with exclusive characteristics. Additionally, ‘race’ is a social term that has negative connotations associated with prejudice and conflict. Despite these challenges, ancestry continues to be important forensically because it can be used to provide a description of a missing person or reduce the pool of potential matches. To assess ancestry, anthropologists rely on skeletal features that tend to be more common in some populations than others to place an individual into one of three broad geographic categories: European, African, or Asian. Importantly, while people with similar ancestry tend to share certain characteristics, humans vary more within populations than between them and there is a high degree of overlap.


Animal Scavenging

Refers to the consumption of dead bodies by carnivorous animals. Carnivore scavenging is common on remains deposited in remote areas. Large species, like dogs or bears can scatter, remove or destroy whole bodies. Smaller species, like porcupines or mice, can obscure trauma by gnawing on bone and may steal small skeletal elements for their nests. Because of its ability to alter evidence, scavenging is forensically significant and investigators must try to distinguish between damage done by scavengers and damage caused by the perpetrator of a crime.


Antemortem

Latin: “before death.” Refers to injuries or events that occurred during life. Examples include conditions that alter the natural form of the bone such as healed fractures, infections or nutritional deficiencies.


Anthropology

The study of humans. This includes subdisciplines that investigate human culture and society (cultural/social anthropology), language (linguistics), past material remains (archaeology); and physical bodies (biological, or physical, anthropology).


Archaeological remains

Prehistoric or historic skeletal material that has no relevance to modern legal proceedings. In North America, these may include the remains of First Nations/ Native American individuals or European settlers. If an anthropologist or archaeologist determines a set of remains to be archaeological, they are not usually considered forensic cases.


Archaeology

The study of past cultures and events, through the recovery and examination of material objects and environments (e.g., villages, buildings, tools, and other artifacts).


Atomic testing

In 1945, the United States tested the first nuclear bomb as a weapon for use in World War II. Over the next 20 years, other countries participated in nuclear testing as part of weapons development programs. In 1963 the Limited Test Ban Treaty restricted atomic testing to underground facilities.


Authentication

To make valid or credible. For example, to establish a test, and its results, as genuine.


Bias

The tendency towards a perspective or result that interferes with the ability to be impartial or objective.


Biological Profile

Is a summary of the essential biological information regarding an individual. It generally includes estimates of age, sex, stature, and ancestry. It may also include personally identifying characteristics like healed fractures, diseases or medical interventions that can be linked to an individual’s specific medical history. Constructing a biological profile is an important first step when skeletonised human remains are discovered as this information can be used to identify specific individuals or narrow a list of possible missing persons.


Blind test

A test in which background information that could influence the outcome is withheld from the person performing the examination. This is designed to achieve unbiased and objective results.


Blunt force trauma

Injury caused by a strong force impacting a wide area of bone, for example by an instrument with a broad flat or rounded surface.


Bomb pulse dating

A technique that uses differing levels of atmospheric C14 to estimate an unidentified individual’s year of birth. The method is based on differences in C14 before the advent of atomic testing in 1945 and after 1963, when levels began to drop as a result of the Limited Test Ban Treaty.


Botany

The scientific study of plants. In a forensic investigation, botanical evidence may help to identify clandestine graves or determine if a body has been moved.


Carnivore scavenging

Refers to the consumption of dead bodies by carnivorous animals. Carnivore scavenging is common on remains deposited in remote areas. Large species, like dogs or bears can scatter, remove or destroy whole bodies. Smaller species, like porcupines or mice, can obscure trauma by gnawing on bone and may steal small skeletal elements for their nests. Because of its ability to alter evidence, scavenging is forensically significant and investigators must try to distinguish between damage done by scavengers and damage caused by the perpetrator of a crime.


Cause of death

The biomedical explanation for a death. For example, a disease or injury.


Chain of custody

The documentation of the transfer of evidence from one individual to another. A chain of custody provides a history of the evidence including where it went and who examined it or had access to it and is designed to prevent the alteration or loss of evidence.


Clandestine graves

A grave that is hidden or unmarked. In contrast to a legal burial, a clandestine grave is one that may be created to hide the victim of a crime.


Consistencies

An agreement in form or appearance; sufficient similarity exists to support a conclusion from the evidence. Example: “The radiating fractures on the skull are consistent with blunt force trauma.” Note: while an explanation may be consistent with a set of circumstances, other explanations are not necessarily excluded.


Consistent

An agreement in form or appearance; sufficient similarity exists to support a conclusion from the evidence. Example: “The radiating fractures on the skull are consistent with blunt force trauma.” Note: while an explanation may be consistent with a set of circumstances, other explanations are not necessarily excluded.


Contamination

Is the presence of foreign material in an otherwise ‘pure’ sample. In forensics, contamination occurs when external substances are inadvertently introduced into a sample of evidence. For example, a collector or analyst who handles a DNA sample improperly might accidentally introduce their own DNA (through hair or skin cells) into a sample from a suspect. When the sample is analysed in the lab, the test may fail altogether or the results may be altered. Consequently, laboratory protocols for forensic investigations must be very strict to ensure the integrity of the testing and the reliability of the results.


Coroner

and medical examiners are official death investigators. In both cases, they are the agents legally responsible for investigating all unnatural, unexplained or unattended deaths. Their primary duties are to establish the facts of a case, determine the identity of the deceased and classify the death as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or indeterminate. They also initiate inquests and make recommendations to prevent deaths under similar circumstances. The main difference between a coroner and a medical examiner is that medical examiners are qualified physicians, usually with additional training in forensic medicine and/or pathology. Coroners are public officials and are not required to be doctors. The system used and the requirements for the job are determined by each state or province.


DNA

(deoxyribonucleic acid) A cellular molecule that contains the genetic code for each organism.


Elapsed time since death

The amount of time between the death of an individual and the discovery of his/her remains.


Entomology

The scientific study of insects. In a forensic context, entomological data may be used to help answer medico-legal questions such as time since death or disturbance of a body.


Evidence

Objects or information that are used to support a conclusion or assertion.


Excavation

The act of removing material or soil. Archaeologists excavate an area to investigate past events, the evidence of which has become buried over time.  Appropriate excavation can reveal material objects as well as spatial relationships and environmental remains that are the result of past events.


Forensic

Relating to legal applications and the court of law.


Forensic Anthropology

Applies the theories and methods of physical anthropology (the study of the human body) to legal questions. Forensic anthropologists typically examine human skeletal remains to determine a person’s identity (age, sex, ancestry, height and recognizable features), and to look for evidence of how the person died.


Forensic Archaeology

Applies archaeological theories and methods to legal questions.  Forensic archaeologists may be called upon by law enforcement agencies to search for, document, recover, and interpret modern human remains and associated evidence that has been scattered or buried.


Genetic Profile

The unique genetic signature of an individual.


Geographic Origin

The area where a person grew up.  The isotopic signature of a geographic region will be reflected in the tissues of an individual who lived in that area.


Holistic

Relates to the entirety of an entity or organism, as opposed to its various parts. An holistic approach combines the expertise of various fields (anthropology, pathology, botany, entomology, etc) to understand an entire event or scene.


Impartiality

The quality of being unprejudiced, fair, or equitable with the goal of providing an unbiased perspective during an investigation or analysis.


Inconsistent

A lack of agreement in form or appearance; the evidence is insufficient to support a conclusion. Example: “The extensive dental work found in the recovered skeleton is inconsistent with the suspected missing person, who had never had a cavity.”


Isotope

Variations of an element that share the same properties and atomic number, but which differ in mass and the number of neutrons they contain. The ratio of different isotopes (such as O18/O16) reflects the environment in which a person lived and can be used to reconstruct life history.


Jurisdiction

The responsibility for, or authority over a location or piece of evidence. In Canada, the police have jurisdiction over the scene, but the Coroner or Medical Examiner has jurisdiction over the body.


Manner of death

The social explanation for a death. For legal purposes, five manners are recognized: homicide, suicide, accident, natural, and unknown.


Medical Examiner

Are official death investigators. In both cases, they are the agents legally responsible for investigating all unnatural, unexplained or unattended deaths. Their primary duties are to establish the facts of a case, determine the identity of the deceased and classify the death as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or indeterminate. They also initiate inquests and make recommendations to prevent deaths under similar circumstances. The main difference between a coroner and a medical examiner is that medical examiners are qualified physicians, usually with additional training in forensic medicine and/or pathology. Coroners are public officials and are not required to be doctors. The system used and the requirements for the job are determined by each state or province.


Missing persons database

A searchable collection of data on missing individuals that contains personally identifying information. This data can be compared to information gathered from unidentified remains in an effort to find a match.


Objectivity

The ability to consider facts or information impartially (free from personal opinions or emotions) and to evaluate evidence without preconceived opinions regarding the events or persons in question.


Pathologist

A medical doctor who studies the causes and processes of disease.


Pathology

The field of study concerning the causes and processes of disease.


Perimortem

Greek/Latin: “around death”. Refers to injuries or events that occurred at or around the time of death. Note: this term does not distinguish between an event that occurred immediately after death from one that occurred at the time of death.


Possible

Something that has the potential to be true. Less certain than ‘probable’. The evidence may be ambiguous, but what there is suggests a given conclusion. Example: “Although the cranial features are ambiguous, the narrow pubic bone suggests a possible male.”


Postmortem

Latin: “after death.” Refers to events or influences that occur after the time of death. This includes human, animal, insect, plant or environmental factors that change the condition of human remains.


Probable

Something that is likely, but not absolutely, true. Refers to conclusions supported by the majority of evidence, but where the evidence is insufficient for a definite conclusion. Example: “The pelvic features suggest a probable female, but DNA samples will be analysed to confirm this.”


Recover

Refers to the systematic collection of found human remains. Forensic anthropologists or archaeologists are often involved in recoveries because their knowledge of skeletal anatomy can ensure the remains are collected thoroughly and appropriately. Forensic archaeologists may also lead the recovery of multiple fatalities. Ideally, this prevents the mixing of remains and ensures any associated material is collected in a way that limits the loss or damage of evidence.


Recovery

Refers to the systematic collection of found human remains.  Forensic anthropologists or archaeologists are often involved in recoveries because their knowledge of skeletal anatomy can ensure the remains are collected thoroughly and appropriately. Forensic archaeologists may also lead the recovery of multiple fatalities. Ideally, this prevents the mixing of remains and ensures any associated material is collected in a way that limits the loss or damage of evidence.


Sharp force trauma

Injury caused by a strong force impacting a very narrow area of bone, for example by an instrument with a point or sharp edge.


Taphonomy

Is the study of changes that occur to an organism between the time of death and the time of discovery and analysis. In forensic anthropology, this includes all the biological and non-biological processes that contribute to the decomposition, skeletonization, and postmortem alteration of remains. Biological factors include human agents, animals, plants, insects, and invertebrates. Non-biological factors include temperature, humidity, precipitation, and exposure to sun, wind, water, soil, fire or rock. A knowledge of taphonomic processes allows anthropologists to estimate the length of time a body has been buried or exposed, or determine whether a set of remains has been moved.


Time since death

The amount of time between the death of an individual and the discovery of the body. Time since death may be estimated through decomposition, skeletal condition, entomological evidence, or botanical evidence. This information is important for reconstructing the events leading up to the individual’s death.


Trauma

An injury. In forensic anthropology it refers primarily to injuries that affect the bone. There are four categories of trauma: sharp force (narrowly area, e.g. knife), blunt force (broad area, e.g. brick), projectile force (dynamic, e.g. bullet), and miscellaneous (including explosions, strangulations or burning). For forensic investigations, the timing of a trauma is very important. Antemortem trauma occurs during life and usually shows some healing. Perimortem trauma occurs at or around the time of death. Postmortem damage occurs after death. With experience, antemortem and post-mortem trauma can usually be identified. Perimortem traumas, however, are more difficult. Because the bone is fresh, it is impossible to distinguish between an injury that occurred immediately before, at, or immediately after death.