Learning From Skeletons


Look for the sagittal suture – the squiggly line that runs the length of the skull – and note whether is it's completely fused.  If it is, the remains are likely to be of someone older than 35. Look for a second line at the front of the skull -- the coronal suture – which fully fuses by age 40.


Study the teeth. If they're worn down it could be a sign of a poor diet. If they're well-maintained and/or have good dental work such as fillings, they were able to afford proper dental care—another clue as to the identity of your skeleton. Consult a scientist who specializes in teeth, known as an odontologist. They can determine how old a person was at death, what kind of health they were in and what kind of diet they had.


Examine where the ribs join the sternum. This is also a good indicator of age.  A forensic anthropologist will compare it against a database of standard markers and it is often more accurate as it is not a weight-bearing bone and remains unaffected by childbirth.


Look for the pubic symphysis, which is the joint located in the pelvis. The older the person at death, the more pitted and craggy these bones will be.  Forensic anthropologists will compare this against a database of standard markers to learn the age of the skeleton.  Check if there are any soft marks on the cartilage which are left by childbirth as the bones soften to allow easier birth.

To identify gender, assess the pelvis shape; men have a narrow, deep pelvis and women a wider, shallower pelvis, better-suited to carrying a baby. For a quick identification in the field, a forensic anthropologist will find the notch in the fan-shaped bone of the pelvis and stick their thumb into it. If there's room to wiggle the thumb, then it's a female; if it's a tight fit, it's the skeleton of a man


Examine the wrists, as bones often hold clues to the primary work of the decedent. Bony ridges form where the muscles were attached and pulled over the years. A forensic anthropologist might find a bony ridge on the wrist and decide the dead person may have been someone who used their hands for a living, such as a chef or seamstress.


DNA samples may be taken from any existing hair tissue.  As well as positively identifying someone, it can also identify a person's race or tribal origins.


When the skeleton is first discovered, take samples from around the remains including any bugs you come across. Insects such as blowflies have a very distinct lifecycle and often plant their eggs on newly deceased bodies. By identifying the stage of the lifecycle, a near-exact time of death can be established. This science is known as forensic entomology.

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