Forensic Anthropology Research Skeletal Biology

Noelia Acosta, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

In the spring of 2018 I had the privilege of participating in an internship at the Grady Early Forensic Research Laboratory (GEFARL), one of the three multi-laboratory divisions contributing to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). While I participated in various activities throughout the semester, my main responsibilities involved analyzing the pathology and trauma evident in donations gathered and then photographing them to then enter the data into the FACTS database. This internship report will summarize my work as an intern and how the lab donations helped me hone my skills in trauma and pathology all while understanding a broader concept of anthropology. An opportunity like this equips students like me with the knowledge to recognize or interpret the causes and effects of diseases and trauma for future laboratory studies, forensic cases, or archaeological digs.

FACTS:

Through the FACTS program, anthropology professors, undergraduate, and graduate students use the donated bodies brought in through the university’s Willed Body donation program to further understand or conduct academic anthropological studies. In this program, regular citizens or the relatives of the passed away individuals choose to donate their body to scientific progress and research. The facility consists of three diverse divisions: The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), and the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory (GEFARL), which is where I interned. These three segments contribute towards a greater understanding of the archaeological and forensics field on learning how a body deteriorates in several types of climate (or weather); how it repositions itself and settles after its process of decomposition, or how several types of animals affect the body depending on how it is left in the environment.

Learning the Bones:

While interning at GEFARL, I came to understand that knowing pathology and trauma expands beyond knowing the causes and effects of an incident. Trauma is any physical disruption of living tissue by outside force (Christensen et al. 2014, 341). Pathology is the study of disease (Christensen et al. 2014, 313), particularly their cause and effect on the human body. These concepts on human bone involve a deeper understanding of how an individual could have lived their life before, during, and after an event affected their body, especially what kind of circumstances the body underwent for their skeleton to end in the conditions it’s presented to me at the lab.

As an example, I refer to one of the last donations I analyzed, D38-2014, also introduced as Donation #38 of the year 2014. The inventory sheet handed to me by my supervisor at the beginning of the semester noted the donation to have been a truck driver and to have been in a large auto-accident during their youth. I judged them to be of an older age based on the disappearance of their suture lines – a common characteristic among older age groups and calcification (solidifying of the tissue) on the front ends of their ribs. He had additional bone growth and bone remodeling on substantial portions of his pelvis, the lower spine and upper limbs. From previous classes on pathology and trauma, I had understood bone growth to occur either for developmental purposes, such as a child growing up, or healing after fractures. I realized that I had overlooked macroscopic holes that were visible at the ends of his limbs. It only takes a trained eye to pinpoint what kind of deformities have developed outside of the normal spectrum of bone growth. After enough experience in understanding what normal bone is and what it should look like, seeing what doesn’t belong becomes a lot easier. These were the kind of skill that I was looking to refine in this internship.

After various comparisons to scientific articles and previous notes from my classes, I estimated osteoporosis to be the cause of the extra bone growth. Osteoporosis is an increase in bone porosity or decrease in bone density (Christensen 2014, 274); porosity refers to the inside or outside of bone having small holes or spaces (Figure 1). Normal bone compared to this sample was of no different color however, its cellular functions had changed dramatically.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Osteoclasts, cells that break down the bone, become triggered at a higher rate during osteoporosis when compared to the regular process of bone remodeling. During the process of normal bone remodeling, there is a balance between osteoclasts and osteoblasts, bone forming cells, to help the growth and healing of bone in the life of an individual. While osteoporotic osteoclasts are breaking down bone, osteoblast attempt to keep this balance in place by working on the most affected areas. Meanwhile, other factors such as diet or daily activities, such as running or carrying grocery bags, that are affecting the body as well. There are key areas that need to be supported for the body to function regularly. Areas like these would involve the pelvis, the ends of long bones (like humerus or femur) and above all, the lumbar, or lower portion of the spine, which is responsible for holding most of the body’s weight either sitting or standing up.

The kind of extra bone growth that this donation had didn’t take any systematic form, it only shaped itself to the way the body needed for it to function in everyday life. Considering that this individual had been a truck driver for most of his life, the disease was most prominent in areas of weight support. The probable cause for disease on the lumbar area of the spine could’ve have been from prolonged sitting during his drives. The probable cause for its effect on the humerus could’ve had to do with lifting or keeping the arms in a fixed position while driving long hours.

The Other Donations:

I noticed a small trend in the diseases that the donations were showing. From the inventory sheet, I noted a large potion of the donations to have been recorded with cancer, and out of the donations I had processed, a substantial portion had dealt with arthritis, painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints, or osteoporosis. The reasons for these trends are completely unknown to me; there could be a portion of older individuals that have been donated and could have been affected several types of conditions or it could have been by chance. The factors are endless.

Photographing:

The second portion of my internship involved photographing the affected areas of the donations. This included me placing the bones on a black background and using a professional camera to expose the most distressed parts of the bones. This part on my internship was important not only because it gave me new skills in learning how to photograph small items in good lighting and photoshop, but also because it contributes to the inventory of the facility. The professors, and graduate students can use these photos for school outreach, grant proposals, analysis comparisons and studies of the type of conditions the donations at GEFARL hold.

Conclusion:

My time at GEFARL has been one of the most rewarding experiences on my path towards my career as a forensic anthropologist. Being an intern opened doors for me to help in outreach opportunities, such as the annual STEM fair at the San Marcos High School, and a free search and recovery class at the Freeman Ranch. The work that FACTS is doing is only one part of several universities trying to understand past burial patterns and the effects of climate and weather on the decomposition of the human body. This internship has taught me to pay attention to the smallest details in human osteology and note that the smallest feature could have bigger meanings. It has inspired me enough to focus on pathology and trauma as a main subject in my graduate studies and hopefully pursue those sub-fields as part of my career. I now know better terms to describe my observations and have mental images of how trauma and certain pathologies are supposed to look like on bone. I have also sharpened my skills in identifying bones and estimating sex or age. To me, any opportunity to hands-on learn anthropology is a valuable opportunity on its own, and any chance to work a small part of a bigger project is even better.

 

References Cited:

Christensen, Angi M. 2014. Forensic Anthropology: Current Methods and Practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

MacGill, Markus. 2018. “Osteoporosis Explained” Medical News Today website, January 4. Accessed [May 7, 2018]. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/155646.php

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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