Forensic Anthropology in the News

I’m currently working on a couple of book reviews that I hope to have up later in the week. In the meantime, I stumbled across this interesting story concerning forensic anthropology. According to the report a humerus, radius, and ulna were found as construction workers were demolishing a house. From the article:

A forensic anthropology team from Mercyhurst College, Erie, spent several hours Thursday evening excavating the property at 103 Shenango St. but found no more bones or evidence related to them, team leader Dr. Steve Symes said Friday.
“It seems to be an isolated find,” he said, adding they also searched a nearby Dumpster and truck containing demolition debris.

That is all they found. There are several mysteries here. First, where did the arm come from? According to the article, no one has a clue. Second, what can we learn about the person the arm belonged to? The answer to this question is not much. The head of the humerus can be used, much like the head of the femur, to determine gender although it is not as reliable. There are also a number of regression equations for estimating stature, but they too, are not as reliable as using the femur. Additionally, most are dependent on knowing the ethnicity of the individual who’s stature is being estimated.


7 Responses

  1. What are the chances a DNA sample could be obtained from the bones?

  2. They don’t mention in the article. I suspect it could be done, and sources of contamination (by those who have handled the bones) could be checked out. The problem is, what do you do with it once you have extracted it? Who would you compare it too in order to determine identity?

  3. Well if someone really wanted to do the detective thing perhaps you could start with the history of the house and previous tenants, and a C14 date to narrow down the search? The level of musculature might tell you something about gender. The bones seem to be in good condition, so I’m a little surprised they can’t be more definite about amputation, I would’ve thought that would leave some marks.
    All my archaeological education has been in the UK, of course, where the timeline is a bit different. They seem to be pretty sure the bones are relatively recent.

  4. There was no mention of any kind of trauma or pathology to the bones so I am assuming they are complete bones…

  5. DNA typing is probably called for, with checks on contamination. Even if nothing turns up immediately, some day there may be a missing person report that may reveal some further clues. That is, such reports are usually filed by next-of-kin, whose DNA should be a close match. If there are no such reports right now, such reports even one or two generations in the future might still eventually reveal a possible identity or at least a plausible one. For example, someone searching for a long-lost father, uncle, or even grandfather (grandmother, etc.) might have a story to tell…or want one.

  6. Perhaps I should explain my above comment a bit. In genealogical research, I came across more than one relatively recent ancestor who seemed to disappear into thin air — he married, fathered a child or two, and then never was accounted for afterward. One always wonders what happened. Did he just run off and start a new life elsewhere? Was he a victim of foul play? If there was some sort of investigation of these bones, the beginning of someone’s answer might be found — perhaps the bones would reveal signs of disease, say, or an age at death at least.

  7. The house is said to be over 100 years old. Perhaps, as the article muses, someone had a necessary or accidental amputation and kept the severed limb – it’s been known to happen. Perhaps the bones are a relic of an old medical practice, where a doctor or medical student kept them for display or educational purposes. A relative might have buried them after the medical person’s death.
    There are many old graveyards in places where erosion and other geological processes, or occasionally construction or agricultural work, causes bones to reach the surface. I’ve actually seen this myself, where rain eroded a clay soil bank beside a creek over many years, until the cemetary placed there when the cliff was a good ways off began to also erode into the creek. Articulated and single bones, and rotted wood coffins sporadically spilled from the bank for years before anyone with the authority to do so did anything about it. There are many people who might take advantage of such a situation, out of curiousity, morbid humour, or for a prank.

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