Anthropology in the Service of the Criminal Justice System and the Society

Dr J. R. Gaur Director and Professor

School of forensics, Risk Management and National Security

Rastriya Raksha University

Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat India


Crime free society is a dream of every human individual on earth. But it never happened ever since the origin of humans on the planet earth. Crime is always perpetuated in one form or the other. With the advancements in science and technology criminals also became high-tech and commit crimes with scientific methods. To combat the scientific criminals and for the prevention and investigation of crime, scientific tools and technologies are imperative for the criminal justice system. As we know “Diamond cuts Diamond”, thus, for apprehending criminals using high-end scientific tools, counter-strategies must also make use of methods rooted in advanced scientific technologies.

Word Forensics is derived from the Latin word "Forensis". It simply means a ‘Forum’ that relates to the court of law and is subjected to discussion and debate. A broad definition of Forensic Science views it as, any branch of science and technology which is helpful in the investigation of crime and the administration of justice. To this, I must add the role that the human psyche and human behaviour plays in shaping patterns of behaviour of criminals and is studied as part of criminology. This provides a perfect amalgamation of biological and Socio-cultural anthropology to examine crime and criminal behaviour.


My foray into the exciting world of forensic anthropology started in the year 1978. After my masters in biological anthropology in the year 1976, like most of us, I got a Junior research fellowship to pursue my PhD. My academic life took a turn when I was appointed as Scientific Assistant in Forensic Science Laboratory, Haryana, in the year 1978. About 400 cases pertaining to bones/skeleton examination were pending there for want of expertise. In 19 months, I cleared all the cases and received my first promotion to Senior Scientific Assistant in February of 1980. The same year in the month of November, I was appointed as a senior scientific officer by HPSC. By now, I was immersed in examining crime cases requiring Anthropological, Biological, Serological and dermatoglyphic evidence from crime scenes. Solving every case became an obsession and the thought of sending any case to another laboratory for confirmation became a matter of prestige. These were my cases, and I must find evidence. However, I did consult outside experts for scientific discussions on innovative technologies. The obsession and thrill of solving crime scenes gradually became both a challenge and passion.

My destiny as a forensic scientist was affirmed and my pursuit of a PhD took a back seat. It was almost a decade later that I returned to complete my PhD in Blood group Serology and Forensic Serology in the year 1989. I ventured into the domain of Forensic Science when forensic anthropology was rarely taught as a subject or even as a paper. It was the sheer application of my training in anthropological methodology that was responsible for my success in unexplored territory. In more than four decades of my career as a forensic anthropologist, I have served as deputy director and director in various Forensic science laboratories in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, had the privilege of setting up one state and two regional laboratories in Himachal Pradesh. I also taught in nearly twenty universities, police and Judicial academies, received four national awards and a lifetime achievement award from the honourable Union Home Minister of India in 2018. In 2020, I was brought out of my retirement to serve as Director and Professor at a recently inaugurated university known as Rastriya Raksha University, Gandhi Nagar in the department of Forensics, Risk Management and National Security.

This is the story of an Anthropologist who became a Forensic Anthropologist while learning by doing, but my strength was my initial training at the graduate and postgraduate levels. Rising threats of terror, growing crime and rapidly evolving methods of crime have made the need for training in forensic anthropology imperative for anthropological programmes across the country. There are 145 forensic science laboratories and institutions in India today employing nearly 8000 scientists. Unfortunately, there are only 20 anthropologists working there today. Young anthropologists must explore opportunities in this very important domain of applications of anthropological knowledge and methodology.

I write this blog to introduce young students and researchers to this exciting world of solving crime mysteries. I am sure, most of you must have read crime thrillers, believe me, the real world of exploring the crime scene and the excitement of solving the mystery is far more exciting than crime fiction. It gives you a sense of purpose and the belief that your application of knowledge is contributing to maintaining peace and social order in society. Anthropology has played a pivotal role in structuring investigating technologies in the service of the criminal justice system. Epistemology of anthropological sciences and its holistic and humanitarian approach goes a long way in exploring the causes of what many would call deviant behaviour.


We all know that Anthropology is the holistic study of humankind. It has multiple tools and technologies for establishing human identity and exploring human behaviour. Forensic investigations or scientific crime investigations is the process of establishing human identity and looking into the circumstances that may have provoked the crime. The scene of the crime may relate to a dead or to a living being. Biological tissue materials like bones and hair, nail, and teeth, invariably collected as part of forensic evidence need to be collated. One must ascertain if these belong to a human or to an animal. Likewise, soft tissues like skin, muscles and biological fluids and their stains must be identified in criminal cases, to establish if they had human or animal origin. These biological materials are further examined for individualization. The exciting world of anthropology is equipped with requisite exploratory tools to ascertain and differentiate human remains from animal vestiges.

It was the path-breaking work of German anthropologist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach in human morphology that paved the way for Anthropometry to become one of the first techniques to be used to identify badly decomposed skeletal remains and unidentified human remains. Using these techniques, a student of anthropology can identify age, sex and other unique characteristics of the body that comes for investigation. Using its methodological expertise, anthropologists have reconstructed the face of a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal skull. Today, forensic anthropologists have methodological inputs from serology, dental characteristics, dermatoglyphic, DNA technologies, computer facial reconstruction tools, X-rays to its ever-growing repository of tool kits.

The criminal justice system is changing rapidly. It is now entirely dependent on scientific evidence rather than oral testimonies. People are demanding the involvement of Forensic Anthropologists for the examination of scenes of crime. Forensic anthropological skills provide scientific analysis of the evidence collected for the investigation of the cases of Homicides, Sexual assaults, Paternity disputes, Human trafficking, Disaster and Plane crash victim identification. In addition, their skills are also used in the Identification of Forgeries, bank frauds, insurance frauds and Wildlife crime. Illegal immigration requires anthropological examination. Not only this, even Sports Forensics and Marine forensics also need the attention of Anthropologists.

In India, several cases of dowry deaths/murders are reported. It is seen that the burnt body is consigned to the flames before the arrival of the police to destroy the evidence. In such cases, anthropological inputs are required to collect and analyse samples from the sites of the crime. Anthropologists are also called upon to collect and analyse charred bodies recovered from burnt houses, cars, buses, railway compartments and elsewhere.

Crime Prevention is another area in which anthropologists play a critical role. Some examples of these are:

(a) Prevention of accidental or deliberate transfer of newborn babies. It is done by taking their palm and sole prints in the hospitals and maternity home records. This could also be done by registering blood groups and other genetic profiles. In cases of illegal transfer of such babies, biological parents are easily identified with the help of genetic evidence. The same techniques are also used in cases of paternity dispute cases and human trafficking.

(b) The forgeries and frauds could be prevented by registering fingerprints on documents. Impersonation could be detected by the examination of recorded fingerprints. Bio-metrics is now a common identity marker used for all kinds of official documents, from Adhar card to Passport.

(c) Somatoscopic features continue to be used for the identification of criminals or for rioters in crowds. Such individuals could also be identified from their photographs, videos, and CCTV footage. This could be done in all kinds of criminal cases. These technologies are used both as deterrents and for post crime identifications of the criminals.

(d) From the record slips of fingerprints of the convicted offenders, the persons could be identified from the chance prints left at the scene of the crime or the search slips prepared in respect of suspects. The second time offenders could easily be identified from their fingerprint records or databases. Likewise, the criminals could also be identified from the firearm and DNA data bank comparisons.

(e) Forensic Archaeologists identified the idols of antiquity from the fake idols in idol theft cases from the temples, which proved as a deterrent to future criminals.

(f) Anthropologists and Geologists have also identified precious ores, stones and fossils that were smuggled.


From the time of the discovery of the ABO blood group system till today blood groups, Red cell enzymes, Serum proteins, Osteology, Footprints, Fingerprints, Odontology, Biometrics, DNA profiling, Hair comparison, Handwriting, and Trace evidence are being used by Forensic Anthropologists for the reconstruction of the crime scene and for associating accused with the crime, as also for the identifications of the victim of crime. It all started in the year 1935 with the famous Ruxton case in which superimposition of the skull on the photograph was used for the identification of the victim. The case involved the identification of mutilated and dismembered bodies of two women. It was for the first time that an array of new procedures were involved. It included anatomical studies of the fleshy parts, examination of bones, comparison of feet and shoes, identification of bloodstains, studies of teeth, identification of maggots as an indicator of the approximate time of death, fingerprint analyses, and the identification of various materials found with the bodies, such as fibbers, straw, paper, and clothing. With this evidence, the identity of the victims was finally established by the superimposition of skulls on the photographs.

These techniques have since been modified and are known as Linhof-Technika-Camera superimposition, Mirror Superimposition, Video-Camera superimposition, and Computerized superimposition. These are now used by the courts of law all over the world to solve complicated cases of crime. Nowadays the scientists have switched to computerized facial reconstruction from the manual facial reconstruction. Anthropological techniques have changed with technology, but skillsets initially invented by the discipline continue to be integral in the investigation and administration of justice. Before I conclude my first blog on the subject, let me take you back to two cases from my personal case diary that gave me inertia to pursue my passion:

Case I

In a forested area, about 3 km from a village in Distt. Rohtak, in Haryana, a pedestrian on his morning walk, spotted a human carcass. The body was lying in a partially buried condition on the bank of a pond near the railway track. The corpse emitted a foul smell and the vultures could be seen eating flesh from the exposed lower extremities of the dead body. The matter was brought to the attention of the area police in charge and the investigation began. A Police team accompanied by a Medical Officer, the Area Magistrate and a forensic Anthropologist reached the site. After making initial observations from the exposed leg and foot bones of the carcass, the body was dug out. Given the decomposed condition of the body, the decision to conduct the post-mortem at the spot was taken. The bones and the skull were preserved. Nearby areas/bushes were also searched. At a distance from the deceased, a blood-stained knife was found near a dried pool of blood along with three glass tumblers. The forensic anthropologist recovered fingerprint impressions from the glasses. A sample of blood was also taken from the dead body.

On return to the police station, the team went through reports of missing persons lodged there. Photographs of the missing persons were procured and superimposed with the skull. The age and stature were also estimated from the skeleton, and it was found that the skeleton belonged to one of the missing persons. The blood samples sticking on the knife were also recovered from the place of the occurrence of the crime, and the other bloodstains and fingerprints collected from the scene of the crime were also examined for serological and dermatoglyphic verification.

Four suspects were apprehended. These were acquaintances of the victim. The forensic team also recovered garments concealed by the suspects. On examination of the bloodstains on these garments based on 14 genetic markers, it was established that these stains tallied with that of the victim. The victim's identity was established beyond doubt and the suspects were conclusively linked with the case. In the light of forensic evidence, the trial court convicted the accused persons.

Case II

A hill village of about 20 houses located in a thick pine forest, is surrounded by thick bushes. It has only a narrow footpath. The footpath is also covered with thick lantana bushes on both sides. There is only one water source for the village, locally called a Bawari (water pond). Going to the Bawari is a routine for the village women as this is the only source for fetching drinking water. The way to the Bawari- is also a narrow footpath, surrounded by thick lantana bushes on both sides. On a fateful evening almost at sunset, an old woman went to the pond for fetching a pitcher of drinking water. Her eighteen months old granddaughter followed her without her knowledge. When she returned home, she and other members of the family realised that the little girl is nowhere to be found. A police complaint was lodged the same night.

Orthodoxy and witchcraft are common in some hill districts in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The family feared that the young girl was kidnapped by a local tantric (practitioner of witchcraft) and his thirteen years old son and may have been sacrificed for a tantric ritual. Some locals had last seen her playing in the vicinity of the house of the tantric. Police lodged an FIR u/s 364 and 302 of IPC against the tantric, his brother, and his son. A confessional statement was also procured from the suspects under police custody. They were then asked to take the police to the burial site of the body to recover forensic evidence. One of the suspects took them to the site from where bones were recovered. However, on forensic examination, it was revealed that the bones recovered from the site were of a goat. The second suspect took the investigating team to another site and samples recovered from site II were found to be of a sheep.