The Bones Behind "Bones"
The best place to start would be with the basic scientific subject of the show- forensic anthropology. Anthropology as a whole is comprised of three main sub-fields which are archaeology, cultural anthropology and physical anthropology (1). Forensic anthropology is a sub-discipline of the sub-field of physical anthropology and is primarily used by forensic anthropologists to better understand people around the world; the word forensic is simply referring to the application of this particular sub-field in a court of law (3). Forensic anthropologists often make huge contributions, as far as important research of the collections of human skeletal remains is concerned. The two main collection facilities in the US are the Hamann-Todd Collection located in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Terry Collection located at the Smithsonian Institution down in Washington, D.C. (3). Most people who enter this field of work are usually professors, work with an allied forensic team or work in some type of museum setting as a consultant (3). The show "Bones" focuses mainly on the possibility of a crime-fighting job as being the most common for its forensic anthropologists, but neglects to mention that the other jobs of professorship and museum consultant are more likely to be had (1). This research lends its support to my hypothesis.
Now that the basics of forensic anthropology have been laid out, I can move on to the main focus of this paper- the sub-field of physical, or biological, anthropology. Physical anthropology is basically the study of the mechanisms of biological evolution, genetic inheritance, human adaptability and variation, primatology, primate morphology and the fossil record of human evolution (3). This particular concept was first developed in the 19th century, even before Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendel's work with genetic research (1). All of the evidence and data in this field are of the physical nature, hence the name physical anthropology (3). As previously stated in this paper, some forensic anthropologists are consultants for the criminal justice system and work with homicide detectives, or in "Bones" an FBI agent, to help with the identification of any possible human remains that have been found at a crime scene. If a forensic anthropologist chooses this line of work they will only be needed to determine whether any kind of sharp or blunt force or gunshot occurred before, at the time of, or after the death of the victim (1). Although on "Bones" this topic is always a part of every episode, the show is representing the forensic anthropologist as the one who determines the cause of death and who committed the crime. While it is true that skeletal remains, when examined carefully, can tell the story of the person's life up until their time of death, they can not tell who exactly is responsible for the crime; besides that is not in a forensic anthropologist's job description (1). They can, however, testify in court for a case as an eyewitness for scientific purposes only (1). "Bones" does an excellent job at portraying courtroom testimonies from the different forensic anthropologists on the show; they keep it strictly scientific no matter what the case subject may be. So in this respect, Hollywood did its research thoroughly and has portrayed that aspect correctly, giving evidence that does not support my original hypothesis. However, since the show focuses on the relationship between the FBI agent and the main female forensic anthropologist, it leaves out the fact that the criminal justice system does not rely as much on the forensic anthropologist as it makes it out to be; I believe it does this on purpose so that the main characters have more interaction on screen. This research is supporting of my hypothesis.
I believe it is important to discuss the different processes that a forensic anthropologist might use in order to determine the identity of human remains. On the show, the main character's assistants/colleagues have different areas of specialties of skull reconstruction, DNA profiling and carbon dating, and entomology that when combined help unravel the mystery of the unidentified remains. Let us start with the area of entomology first since it is the easiest to explain. Entomology is the study/science of insects (4). With this part, we can see what happened to the remains after death; we can see this because different insects will inhabit different parts of the remains at different times (2). We also can tell how long since the time of death and where the remains have been if they were moved at any time between the time of death and the time of discovery by keeping in mind that different insects inhabit different parts of the country (1). The character on the show who specializes in this field is portrayed very well and the show does "get it right" when the topic of entomology comes into play. So therefore, this research does not support my hypothesis.
Next we shall try to explain the concept of skull reconstruction and how that helps with the identification of remains. Basically, skull reconstruction is exactly what it says- the reconstructing of the skull to determine identity. There are two ways to go about this; one way is to make a 3-D clay model based on the reconstruction or compile a 2-D picture using advanced computer technology, on which the show is focused (2). The method for rebuilding the skull is the same whether one uses a 2-D or 3-D approach. First, one assembles the skull as best they can, possibly spending days trying to fit together the tiny fragments of skull that have been found (2). Secondly, one puts in tissue depth markers in various points on the skull; this is to give an idea of the depth of flesh at various points on the skull (2). The markers are already made in the sense that they are averages of sex, race, height, weight, and so on; despite being very general they work very well as long as an educated guess has been made about the race, sex, height, weight, etc. of the owner of the remains (1). Then you would sculpt/program anatomical structures like eyes and muscles to give the face a shape, based on the observations made from the tissue depth markers (2). And the last step in this process would be adding the external features of ears, lips, eyelids, nose, hair and skin color (2). Once the procedure is complete we are left with a very real, life-like portrayal of the person who owned the bones before death; so essentially skull reconstruction is a combination of detailed forensic science, archaeological method and artistic imagination (2). On the show, the character who deals with this part usually uses the 2-D approach on a fancy hologram computer; sometimes the character draws the subject but has yet to use the 3-D approach. Once again, this research has proven my hypothesis to be false.
Moving on to the last process of DNA profiling and radiocarbon dating, the show does not really portray this aspect at all despite it being a huge part of forensic anthropology. DNA profiling is most often used within the criminal justice system and is useful in determining criminals and victims as well as identifying remains found at archaeological excavations. The profiling is a very complicated process. First enzymes are used to cut the strands of DNA into pieces of varying lengths and then separating them by an electric current (2). They are then labeled with a radioactive substance that will show up in X-rays (2). Finally, and X-ray of the fragments is taken and when the results show up they look like a simple bar code but are really someone's genetic make-up (2). Most of the time DNA from the mitochondria is used because it is more stable than DNA from the nucleus and easier to read on the X-ray results; however, it is harder to test and it can only indicate relationships/identity through the maternal line (2). As for radiocarbon dating, forensic anthropologists do not use the technique/process unless they are working with something many, many years old; radiocarbon dating is simply measuring the amount of Carbon 14 that is left in the remains in order to determine when the person died (4). Not much of this is mentioned on the show because there are not many "cases" that deal with thousands-of-years-old remains; it is more of a contemporary/dramatic show and more concerned with what is going on in the lives of its characters. Even though my research showed that radiocarbon dating and DNA profiling are extremely important to forensic anthropology and the show hardly puts a focus on them, it also showed support for my hypothesis.
In conclusion, my research was about half and half although out of the five smaller conclusions I could draw from my research on the separate subjects under forensic anthropology three were in support of my hypothesis and two were against it. Concerning the TV show "Bones" as far as correct and accurate information is concerned, my research proved that Hollywood did do their own research and tried to fit into the show as much as they could while still maintaining a drama-focused prime-time television show. I believe that "Bones" retained a lot of its scientific appeal because an actual forensic anthropologist wrote the novels on which the show is based; I am also more than certain that she had a lot of input in the making of the show. I am glad to say that I have learned a lot from my research; I am a classical culture and society major so I know later on I will most likely be working with a forensic anthropologist in my field of study. I am not upset that I did not definitely prove my hypothesis right or wrong because that's what it's all about- getting it less wrong, not completely right.