Archaeology and forensic anthropology represent separate specialties within the broader discipline of anthropology, the social science that studies the cultures, languages, development and evolution of human beings. Archaeology studies past peoples and cultures, while forensic anthropology applies anthropological analysis in a legal context. Although archaeology and forensic anthropology share some similarities, the two fields differ in important ways.
Forensic anthropology and archaeology have different aims. Forensic anthropologists work in a legal context, striving to identify the remains of people killed in disasters, homicides or wars. For example, forensic anthropologists assisted human rights investigators in identifying bodies found in mass graves in Bosnia during the 1990's. Forensic anthropology, in short, is a specialty that applies physical anthropology and osteology, the study of human bones, to the law. In contrast, archaeology is an academic discipline focused on understanding and gaining knowledge about past human cultures and civilizations.
Forensic anthropologists analyze skeletal remains, using their knowledge of human biology and osteology to assist law enforcement and legal authorities. By analyzing bones, forensic anthropologists help identify human remains and determine the time and cause of death. Archaeologists may study skeletal remains as part of their studies of past civilizations, but their interests extend beyond human remains to include other materials from past cultures, including buildings, tools, animal remains and other artifacts.
Forensic anthropology and archaeology spring from different branches of the broader field of anthropology. Archaeology is a specialty of its own that studies past human civilizations, while forensic anthropology is a specialty within physical anthropology. Physical anthropology emphasizes osteology, human biology, genetics, and human growth and development. Archaeology's scope extends beyond human physical characteristics to include history and culture as well.
Although forensic anthropology and archaeology differ, the two specialties are complementary as well. Forensic anthropologist Arlene Midori Albert of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington points out that aspiring forensic anthropologists need a broad anthropological education that emphasizes physical anthropology but includes other sub-fields as well, including archaeology.