Forensic Anthropology

Justin Demere, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

Demere CASAs an intern at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) during the spring 2015 semester, I was responsible for photographing and documenting cases of evidence and trauma in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection. Trauma and pathology analysis is a unique way to understand how human ancestors interacted and how they lived. Accordingly, trauma and pathology curation at FACTS plays a vital role, not only from a forensic anthropologist’s perspective, but also as an important tool for other anthropologists attempting to understand the behaviors and lifestyles of past humans. This internship report outlines my daily responsibilities as an intern, and how the ongoing work and research at FACTS has a broader impact on society.

FACTS

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State, or FACTS, is a multi-laboratory forensic anthropology research facility that allows faculty and students to conduct research in a number of anthropological and osteological areas, including decomposition, human skeletal variation, and other osteological methods and processes. For example, researchers use the skeletal collection at FACTS to study human skeletal variation or to practice aging and sexing techniques. Additionally, FACTS is used to educate local and national law enforcement agencies in regards to recovering human remains. In order to conduct such research, FACTS also operates a willed body donation program that allows individuals to donate their bodies to the research facility after their death. When a body is donated, it is used in decomposition research and then permanently stored in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection.

The following sections will cover the basics of pathology and trauma, my main project at FACTS, what I discovered through my project, and the anthropological relevance of my internship.

Trauma/Pathology

Trauma and pathology are important aspects when studying human skeletal remains, because they can reveal information about behaviors and incidents that occurred throughout an individual’s life. Trauma is any injury to living tissue or bone that is caused by a force or object from outside the body (Lovell 1997: 139-170). Skeletal trauma can take many different forms, including breaks in the bone, fractures, or dislocations. Bone fractures can occur as the result of several different forces on the bone, such as compression, tension, or bending (White, 2005). Fractures can be the result of excessive force to the body, or repetitive activities that are performed throughout an individual’s life.

Pathology is the study of diseases and their impact on the human body. Pathological conditions can arise on bone due to a variety of causes, such as nutritional deficiencies, tumors, or infectious diseases (White 2005: 309-312). Therefore, pathological indications on human bones can reveal a wealth of information about a people’s behavior, their daily lives, and the type of conditions under which they lived.

Main Project

While I participated in a number of activities, my main internship responsibility was to document evidence of trauma and pathology in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection, housed at the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory. In order to document these cases, I was responsible for photographing all instances of pathology or trauma in the collection. I then edited and uploaded these pictures to the FOROST database, a forensic database that contains images and descriptions of pathology and trauma that have been documented by several different agencies.

The main goal when photographing the skeletal elements was to provide various clear views of the pathology or trauma that was present on each bone. To do so, I set up a photography area, inspected each skeleton for pathologies, and photographed each element that displayed signs of pathology or trauma. In order to photograph the skeletal elements, I set up a photography area consisting of two soft boxes, a lamp to shine light onto the element from above, and a black velvet sheet to serve as the background of the photography area. I selected specific individuals from the collection with known pathology and/or trauma incidences using a list of medical histories of each individual in the skeletal collection. Then, I inspected each element of the skeleton for trauma and pathology, even if no such cases were reported in the medical history. When I found a case of trauma or pathology on any skeletal element in the sample, I made a note of which element and what type of pathology/trauma was present. Then, I took pictures of the pathology or trauma with a high quality camera that could illustrate small details in each bone element. The element was photographed from several different angles in order to best illustrate views of the pathology present. I then photographed the overall element, or elements, present. Finally, I took close-up pictures as needed in cases where more detail was necessary to illustrate the pathology present. This process was repeated for each element in the skeleton, and for each skeleton in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection.

After photographing the element, I recorded a description of the pictures in a photo log database that serves as a record of each picture taken of pathology/trauma in the collection. I recorded several bits of information, including the skeletal donation number, the range from which the photo was taken (i.e. overall or close-up), the type of pathology present, a description of what the picture illustrates, and the view from which the picture was taken (i.e. anterior, posterior, superior, lateral). Each picture taken of pathology and trauma is entered into the photo log database in this manner.

After all pictures were taken and logged, I edited them in order to create a uniform and contrasting black background, before uploading them to the forensic osteology database (FOROST), which serves as a central database of pathologies and traumas that can be used by other anthropologists for comparison. To edit the pictures, I removed all unnecessary background from the picture. Only the photographed bone and scale that were included in the picture were kept. Using Photoshop, I carefully outlined the bone and scale in order to cut them out from the original picture. Then, these two elements were placed on a solid black background with a Texas State University logo. It is standard procedure for all photos that are uploaded to the FOROST database to be placed on a solid black background because it allows for a clearer view of the bone and the pathology/trauma that is present on it. After this process was completed, the photos were then uploaded to a CD and sent to FOROST authorities.

After completing the process of photographing trauma/pathology and editing pictures, I wrote a standard operating protocol that outlines the procedure for documenting trauma and pathology in the collection. The protocol is a step-by-step outline that will help future staff keep up to date on documentation by providing a standard procedure that everyone can follow and complete in a consistent manner.

Project Findings

There were several different types of pathologies that I encountered in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection, including fused skeletal elements, medical devices, fractured skeletal elements, and a few gunshot wounds. A large portion of these pathologies were fused skeletal elements. For example, several vertebrae may be fused together due to diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, or DISH, which is a disease that allows ligaments attached to the spine to ossify and become bone. This leads to the fusion of several vertebral bodies in the spine. On occasion, I also found a few ribs that were also fused to the vertebrae, and also fusion of the two os coxae along with the sacrum.

Next to fusion, medical devices were the most commonly observed pathology. Hip replacements and knee replacements were a typical find in most individuals in the skeletal collection. The areas responsible for movement in these areas – including patellas, the proximal or top ends of tibias and femurs, and the acetabulum of the os coxae – were usually replaced or covered with metal or plastic medical devices designed to improve movement in these areas. Shoulder replacements and open heart surgeries were also a common trend in the collection. Due to the older age of most of the people in the collection, the high rate of medical pathologies that I found are not a surprising discovery.

There were also several cases of trauma in the skeletal collection. For the most part, these traumas were fractures to the ribs. Due to the fact that the ribs are relatively easy bones to break and can break in a variety of situations, this was not a surprising find. Another common trauma case was fractures to the distal, or bottom, ends of the tibia and fibula. This type of trauma is usually an indication of some sort of fracture that occurs in the ankle. Most of the fractures in this area typically do not heal correctly, and often result in bone that is offset from the original site. This trauma type was common in automobile accidents, because of the location of the foot while driving. This was supported by documentation provided by these individuals, which stated that they had been involved in serious automobile accidents. Fractured femurs are also related to automobile accidents, but were much less common in the skeletal collection than fractures of the tibia and fibula.

Finally, I observed a high incidence of gunshot wounds in the collection. Many of these wounds were the result of suicides inflicted to the head. Gunshot wounds are typically inflicted to the side of the head around the temporal bone, but others included gunshot wounds to the front of the face and through the eye. Gunshots leave an entrance wound on the side of the skull where the bullet enters the cranium. The opposite side of the skull typically displays evidence of an exit wound, where the bullet leaves the cranium. Exit wounds are typically slightly larger than entrance wounds, and display a beveling on the outside area around the exit site.

Typically, gunshot wounds to the skull cause the skull to fracture into many pieces. This was the case for the majority of gunshot wound victims in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection. In most cases, the skull fractured on the side of the exit wound, and ran across the skull to the other side. As a result of this, large pieces of bone were often completely separated from the skull. Fractured and separated segments of the skull made photographing difficult, because of the trouble involved in putting the pieces back together. On a few occasions, the pieces of the skull could not be put back together, and individual elements of the broken skull had to be photographed and edited separately.

What Trauma and Pathology Can Reveal About The Past

The study of trauma and pathology plays a critical role as a mechanism for learning about the past. Trauma and pathology analysis can be used to understand and formulate theories about the behaviors of human ancestors. For paleopathologists, studying the pathologies of ancestral human specimens can give them an insight into what diseases and other medical ailments plagued these people. A study of pathology in past humans can also reveal how these people dealt with medical and health issues. For example, trephination was used by ancestral human populations to alleviate brain swelling by drilling a hole into the skull (Zimmerman et al. 1981: 497-501). Trauma can help indicate incidences of physical conflict, or even wars, between two populations when used in unison with other contextual evidence.

One type of fracture, called parry fractures, were often thought to be a good indicator of interpersonal violence. Parry fractures occur on the bones of the forearm; the radius or ulna. This type of fracture generally occurs when the individual is attempting to fend off a blow from another person. As the individual raises their arm to block a blow, they are impacted on their forearm, which results in this type of fracture. Therefore, parry fractures alone are not enough evidence to indicate violence, but should be used with other contextual findings to formulate a theory.

Trauma analysis has been used in several instances when studying interpersonal violence rates in prehistoric human populations. For example, Jurmain used trauma analysis in his study of a prehistoric population in central California to compare interpersonal violence rates to those of other populations that had been studied (Jurmain 2001: 13-23). By comparing the frequency of trauma found in his skeletal population to those found in other populations, Jurmain discovered that the population he was studying had similar rates of interpersonal violence as others in the area. However, parry fractures are not always indicative of violence. Fractures, such as parry fractures, may be the result of accidents and may be in no way related to violent activities. Jurmain also warns that parry fractures should not be used to make inferences without using a more contextual anthropological perspective.

Trauma and pathology analysis may also reveal how labor and power was divided in these societies. Martin and Harrod state that violence found in bioarchaeological settings is important because it relates to influence and power in daily life (Martin et al. 2014). Certain fractures and breaks in the bone are indicative of repetitive activity. For instance, a person who repetitively carried heavy loads, because of their profession, may have large muscle attachment sites on their arms or back. Additionally, people who frequently bend over can initiate similar alterations to their bone structure, simply from their daily lives. Given this information, it could be possible to imply that lower class people performed more physical labor than higher class members of society, and therefore show an increased frequency in work-related pathologies. Cultural anthropologists may learn a lot from trauma and pathology analysis in this way, because it can be used to refine evolving ideas about how a past society functioned in regards to division of labor.

Conclusion

My internship at FACTS has been an immensely rewarding experience. My time working on trauma and pathology documentation has allowed me to gain valuable hands-on experience with a wide variety of pathologies that would not have been possible otherwise. Documenting these cases of trauma and pathology has taught me to pay close attention to detail. By becoming familiar with the normal conditions that typically exist in the human skeleton and how to recognize instances that do not fit the norm, I have learned how to distinguish pathological events.

Trauma and pathology are areas of study that I wish to pursue in my graduate research. Familiarity with the pathologies and traumas present in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection will help me formulate research questions in the future and refine my research interests. Furthermore, becoming familiar with pathologies and trauma allows me to recognize the physical evidence on the bone, and mentally draw an image as to how a particular pathology or trauma affected the individual during their lifetime. Taking a small section of knowledge and applying it to construct a more broad interpretation of a subject is the cornerstone of anthropology.

 

References

Jurmain, Robert

  1. Paleoepidemiological patterns of trauma in a prehistoric population from central California. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 115:13-23

Lovell, Nancy C.

  1. Trauma analysis in paleopathology. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 40:139-170

Martin, D.L., Harrod, R.P.

  1. Bioarchaeological contributions to the study of violence. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 156:116-145

White, Tim D., and Folkens, Pieter A.

  1. The Human Bone Manual. Elsevier Academic Press

Zimmerman, Michael R., Trinkaus, Marjorie L., Aufderheide, Arthur C., Reyman, Theodore A., Marrocco, Guy R., Shultes, Richard E., Coughlin, Elizabeth A.

  1. Trauma and trephination in a Peruvian mummy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 55:497-501

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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