Feel it in the Bones: Forensic Anthropology

What do Forensic Anthropologists and Detectives have in Common?

Forensic anthropology is the sub-discipline that involves skeletal analysis of human and other species’ remains to solve criminal cases. If you were to find human remains or a suspected burial, forensic anthropologists are who you would call upon to gather as much information as one can find from the bones which would include crucial details such as who died, how they died, and how long ago they died. With their training in archaeology, anthropologists are excellently adept at excavating buried remains and meticulously recording the evidence.

Luetgert Murder Case of 1897

Adolph Luetgert and his wife, Louisa Bicknese

Adolph Louis Luetgert was a German-American, popularly known as the “Sausage King”, who was accused of killing his wife Louisa Bicknese. He got rid of her dead body by boiling down the corpse in lye in one of the boilers and then disposing it in the factory furnace. The remains found in the lye pit by forensic anthropologists had fragments of bones along with two of Louisa’s rings. Bone fragments identified by the forensic anthropologist included metatarsal bones, toe phalanx, rib and head of a human female, and that, along with other evidence was crucial in arresting Luetgert of murder.

This case lay emphasis on the fact that, examination of recovered bones could reveal whether bones belonged to human beings, animals or any other being, their age, height, sex, injuries, nature of wounds, history of accidents and medical conditions.



The Skeletons in the Closet

The science that helps forensic anthropologists investigate modern and ancient human remains to solve mysteries evolved slowly but remarkably over the years.  In 1800s, scientists began using Bertillonage skull measurements to differentiate among individuals. Thomas Wingate Todd created the first largest collection of human skeletons in 1912 and did various studies regarding suture closures on the skull and timing of teeth eruption in the mandible according to age. Todd was also famous for having developed age estimates based on physical characteristics of the pubic symphysis, which also provide the best evidence for determining the sex of a person.

The Smithsonian forensic anthropologist, Kari Bruwelheide, once said, “The bones are like a time capsule.” A forensic anthropologist can analyse and record the evidence collected of a skeleton  just like a scholar would read a book.

Who, How and When?

The stages of growth and development in bones and teeth provide information about whether the remains were of a child or an adult, depending on whether you are looking at ancient or modern remains.  The skull of a modern child maybe the same size as that of an ancient woman. Women’s skull size seems to have become larger with evolution. A trained anthropologist would be able to examine skeletal remains for clues of ancestry. For example, skull shape and dental traits differ in individuals of African ancestry versus European ancestry. Bones and teeth also provide vital clues regarding certain life-long activities, diet, and ways of life. Abnormal changes in the shape, size and density of bones can indicate disease or traumas, which can be used to identify victims and/or prove cause of death. Bones marked by perimortem injuries, such as unhealed fractures, bullet holes, or cuts, can reflect upon the cause of death.

Written in Bone

The remains recovered at Jamestown

The skull of a 14-year old resident of the historic town of James Fort had unusual marks on it considering the location it was discovered in. This is why it found its way to Smithsonian anthropologist Dr. Douglas Owsley, who discovered that several of the marks of fractures in the skull were from small sharp bladed implement and one from an hatchet. This and several other markings on the skull led the team to believe that the young teenager was a victim of survival cannibalism, probably in the  “starving time” winter of 1609–1610, which killed 80% of the colonists.

Deciphering the Secret of Bones

Anthropologists use a variety of techniques to analyze human remains for more accurate observations. For example, the bones are typically photographed, X-rayed, CT scanned and examined under high power microscopes so that they can get detailed information about the remains without altering them, along with preserving a visual record. Other chemical analysis, such as those involving isotopes, can provide information about the age of bones and a person’s diet.

Reconstruction of ‘Jane’ from Jamestown

For a modern case, photos of missing people may be superimposed on the skull to look for consistencies between the skull structure. Even if photos are unavailable, the face can be reconstructed based on the underlying bone structure and known standards of facial tissue thicknesses. This is what Dr. David Hunt used to identify the remains of a child found near Las Vegas. Owsley and Bruwelheide also used this tool to reconstruct the face of the girl from Jamestown. Whether used to better understand modern or historic remains, forensic anthropology gives the “living a window into the lives of the dead”.



Can we get DNA from Bones?

Human bones are distinguishable from that of other species on the basis of their size, shape, and structure. There could be cases where a number of bodies were buried at the same site. In order to decipher the number of individuals that are present as skeletons we can look for duplicate bones, and differentiate them on the basis of age, size, structure, and preservation method. DNA analysis of bones can help to establish identity. Even if nuclear DNA is highly degraded, mitochondrial DNA in bones and teeth can be used to confirm relationships of old remains with deceased or living descendants.



Written by Pranshu Bansal (JGLS ’13)

Edited by Poulomi Bhadra & Pavithra Jaidev


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s