Tag Archives: Forensics

Death as Life: Guardian Article on the Science of Human Decomposition

6 May

The former neuroscientist and current science journalist Mo Costandi has a new article in The Guardian titled Life After Death: The Science of Human Decomposition.  It is well worth a read for those interested in how the body changes and starts to break down immediately following death, with new insights into the ecology of death itself.  It is well-known that, as the body goes through the initial death and decomposition stages towards skeletonization, it plays host to a wide range of insect life.  However it is only really in the past few years that the study of the so-called thanatomicrobiome has really blossomed, particularly with the rise of the ‘body farms’ across the world where human remains can be scientifically studied and sampled in-situ, in a variety of both buried or non-buried contexts which mimic where bodies are found (Can et al. 2014).  (Although sadly the United Kingdom still lacks a human body farm, there is an animal body farm at Glywndr University in Wales, created by forensic scientists at the university to study taphonomic change in non-human corpses).

There are obvious applications in understanding the mechanisms of the thanatomicrobiome and of the ecology present, particularly with the application of the methods in the forensic sciences in helping to pinpoint the time of death of an individual.  As Costandi demonstrates in his remarkable article the human body can be a veritable oasis of life in death, playing host to many species of insect life – this is particularly fascinating for forensic entomologists and anthropologists, but also to bioarchaeologists who work in conditions where the remains, and life stage, of insects can be identified and placed within a certain cycle of decomposition stage, if found within the context of a body.

It is also particularly interesting for those who study bioarchaeology as it highlights the differentiation found not just between bodies in the act of decomposition but also throughout the same body itself, and how this can change due to body location and environment.  This is highlighted by the observations of certain insects at unexpected places, perhaps taking actions that one would not expect – that is very important for the forensic sciences and bioarchaeological sciences as it can determine the theorised location of the body and if the body has moved after death took place but before retrieval (Lindgren et al. 2015).  The action of the gut microbiome also plays a key role in the decomposition of the body as it aids greatly in the decomposition of the body as whole during the biomolecular breakdown of the bodies numerous and varied cells.  The composition of it can also vary from person to person.  The understanding of the decomposition stages and of the taphonomic sequences in the forensic or archaeological record is thus vital to understanding the context of the body itself; whether this helps to identify if the individual underwent a funerary ritual and/or mortuary processing or to identifying whether the individual was buried in a clandestine or a non-normative manner.

Further Information

  • Mo Costandi’s article for the Guardian newspaper can be read here.

Bibliography

Can, I., Javan, G. T., Pozhitkov, A. E. & Noble, P. A. 2014. Distinctive Thanatomicrobiome Signatures Found in the Blood and Internal Organs of Humans. Journal of Microbiological Methods. 106: 1-7.

Lindgren, N. K., Sisson, M. S., Archambeault, A. D., Rahlwes, B. C., Willets, J. R. & Bucheli, S. R. 2015. Four Forensic Entomology Case Studies: Records and Behavioral Observations on Seldom Reported Cadaver Fauna with Notes on Relevant Previous Occurrences and Ecology. Journal of Medical Entomology. 52 (2): 143-150.

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Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting John hawks comments on the article in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.

– taken from John Hawks (2014, emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology and population variation.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the United Kingdom, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).

Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.

There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg above ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014, emphasis mine).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.

Bibliography

Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

I’ve been reading Doug’s latest blog series on archaeological publishing with increasing interest.  I’ve recently ordered a copy of Mary E. Lewis’s 2007 publication The Bioarchaeology of Childhood: Perspectives  from Biological and Forensic Anthropology, and I am very much looking forward to reading it as I am keen to improve my own knowledge of human non-adults, i.e. of juvenile remains.  It has also sadly been a while since I have ordered a new osteology reference book.  This isn’t from a lack of bioarchaeology books that I would like to read, far from it, but it is partially due the cost of buying such copies.  There have been a few recently released books (such as the 2014 Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict by Knüsel et al. and the 2013 Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin et al.) that I’d love to own for my own collection, but I’m waiting until they come out in paperback as they are rather expensive otherwise.

On this blog I have often mentioned discussed and highlighted the wonders of the fantastic Human Bone Manual (2005) by White & Folkens, of Larsen’s (1997) Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton reference book, and of Gosling et al.’s (2008) Human Anatomy: Colour  Atlas and Text Book, amongst a few others.  But I haven’t really mentioned other texts that have been especially helpful in piecing together the value of studying and understanding the context of human osteology for me, personally.  The following publications are a collection of reference books and technical manuals that have proved helpful in understanding human and non-human skeletal material, adult and non-adult remains, and on various aspects of forensic science.  I have dipped into some, read others completely – regardless they are of importance and of some use to the human osteologist and osteoarchaeologist.

So without further ado here are a few osteological and forensic themed books that have proved especially helpful to me over the past few years (and hopefully for many more years to come!):

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

I. Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Colour Atlas. Diane L. France. 2009. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Aimed at the forensic anthropologist, this concise comparative osteology guide on how to identify human skeletal remains compares and highlights anatomical differences between numerous (largely North American) mammal species (such as seal, cow, mountain sheep, domestic sheep, moose etc.).  This book highlights well the challenges faced in recognising skeletal material in the field, and trying to distinguish whether the remains are human or not.  Organised largely by element from superior to inferior (crania to pedal phalanges) into three sections, each detailing a different theme – 1. General Osteology (which includes gross/anatomy/growth/development), 2. major Bones of Different Animals (which are grouped by bone) and 3. Skeletal Elements of Human and Nonhuman Animals (which includes bones from each species shown together).  This is a great immediate reference to recognising the osteological landmarks of various species.  This book should be of particular importance to forensic anthropologists, osteoarchaeologists and zooarchaeologists.

II. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. Louise Scheuer & Sue Black (illustrations by Angela Christie). 2000. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

At the time of publication this volume was one of the few human osteological books focusing purely on the developmental osteology of juveniles.  Arranged into eleven chapters, the book details an introduction to skeletal development and aging, bone development and ossification, and embryological development before focusing chapters to specific areas of the human body (vertebral column, pectoral girdle, lower limb etc.).  The book is really quite important in understanding the juvenile skeletal, as to the untrained eye juvenile material can look nonhuman.  For any forensic anthropologist, human osteologists, or osteoarchaeologist examining juvenile skeletal material this volume is one of the best publications available in order to recognise and understand the skeletal anatomy that can be present at forensic or archaeological sites.  It is also recommended for field archaeologists who may come across juvenile skeletal material and be unaware of what it exactly is.

III. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Arthur C. Aufdeheide & Conrado Rodríguez-Martín (including a dental chapter by Odin Langsjoen). 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A standard reference book in the fields of archaeology, palaeopathology and human osteology, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology presents concise yet detailed descriptions and photographs documenting the variety of diseases and trauma that can affect the human skeleton.  This is a standard reference book that is heavily used in the osteoarchaeological field.  Split into chapters that detail each kind of skeletal lesion, and its recognition, within a type (endocrine disorders, skeletal dysplasia, metabolic disease, trauma, infectious diseases, etc.), the volume describes contextualises each entry with its known history, etiology, epidemiology, geography and antiquity.  Soft tissues diseases that can be found on mummies, or otherwise fleshed bodies from archaeological contexts, are also highlighted and discussed.

IV. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains: Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 28Donald J. Ortner & Walter G. J. Putschar. 1981. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

As above, this publication is another standard reference book for identifying pathological conditions in the human skeletal.  The 1981 edition is now slightly out of date regarding the etiology of some of the diseases discussed in this work, but the photographic images depicting the gross osteological change are still reliable.  Regardless this is still a vital book in understanding the development and sheer breadth of palaeopathology as a field in itself.

V. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 1997. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Forensic taphonomy,  the study of the processes that affect decomposition, burial and erosion of  bodies, is the focus of this publication.  This edited volume contains chapters discussing a wide range of different aspects of forensic taphonomy.  Split into five sections (1. taphonomy in the forensic context, 2. Modifications of soft tissue, bone, and associated materials, 3. Scavenged remains, 4. Buried and protected remains, 5. Remains in water) the book provides an overall perspective on important issues with pertinent case studies and techniques referenced throughout.

VI. Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 2001. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 

The second volume of the Forensic Taphonomy publication, this updated edition deals more widely with the issues that surround the bioarchaeological perspectives of forensic taphonomy, and how it relates to forensic anthropology.  This version includes chapters focusing on mass graves and their connection to war crimes (archaeological and forensic approaches), understanding the microenvironment surrounding human remains, interpretation of burned remains, updates in geochemical and entomological analysis,  and also highlights the updated field techniques and laboratory analysis.  Again this is another hefty publication and one that I have only dipped in and out of, but it is well worth a read as it can bring new insights into the archaeological contexts of human remains.

VII. Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict. Edited by Erin H. Kimmerle & José Pablo Baraybar. 2008. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

This publication focuses on human rights violations in conflicts where forensic evidence is to be used in international tribunals.  It highlights a variety of case studies throughout each of the eight chapters from the numerous contributors (including the late Clyde Snow), describing both the protocols for forensic examination in human rights abuse and violations to the specifics of different classes of trauma (blast, blunt force trauma, skeletal evidence of torture, gunfire etc.).  Importantly the first two chapters focus on an epidemiological approach to forensic investigations of abuse and to the differential diagnoses of skeletal injuries that forensic anthropologists should be aware of (congenital or pathological conditions, peri- vs postmortem injuries, normal skeletal variation etc.).

VIII. The Colour Atlas of the Autopsy. Scott A. Wagner. 2004. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

A slight deviation from the curve above perhaps, but this is an informative read on why and how autopsies are carried out.  It also introduces the purpose and philosophy of the autopsy, and then the importance of circumstantial and medical history of the individual.  The book is, after the first chapter, set out in a step by step style of the procedure with numerous images, helping to detail the aim of the autopsy in medical and forensic contexts.  The book also details the different types of trauma that can be inflicted on the human body (blunt force, sharp, projectile, ballistic, etc.) and their telltale signs on flesh.  It is certainly not a book for the faint of heart, but it is informative of modern medical practice, of a procedure that has had a long and somewhat troubled history of acceptance but still remains a decisive procedure in forensic contexts.

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.

Readings

Although this is just a short selection of publications in the fields of osteology, biological anthropology and forensic anthropology, I hope it gives a quick taste of the many different branches that can make up studying and practicing human osteology.  A few of the publications highlighted above are reference books with chapters by various authors, or are technical manuals, highlighting the step by step techniques and why those methods are used.  A number of the publications above remain standard reference books, while others will of course date somewhat as new techniques and scientific advances come into play (perhaps most evidently in the forensic contexts).  However the core value of the publication will remain as evidence of the advancements in the above fields.

Writing this post has also reminded me that I must join the nearest university library as soon as I can…

Learn From One Another

This is just a snapshot of my own readings and a few of the publications have since been revised.  I’d be happy to hear what readers of this blog, and others like it, have read and recommend in the above fields.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Note

The reason that CRC Press appear often in this selection is because the organisation is a recognised publisher of technical manuals in the science fields.