Determining Forensic Significance
Written by Matthew McMillion   

LET’S SAY THAT SOMEONE ON A HIKE finds a bone and brings it to a police officer. Perhaps not long before, a jogger went missing in the same area, and everyone is on heightened alert to look for the remains and body. Any bones found in the vicinity may be collected and are assumed to belong to the missing.

This article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

Or it could be that during a search conducted by law enforcement in the woods, a bone turns up. Maybe not too surprising, given that animals live—and die—in nature. But then the police officer has to make a judgment call about the forensic significance of the bone; that is, is it related to the death of a human? If so, it will require further police investigation.

Image 1. The local coroner's office investigated this case of potential human bones found near a truck stop. They called in a forensic anthropologist who deterined that they were white-tailed deer bones.

At that point, everything hinges on answering that question.

The High Impacts of Misidentification

Now, if the officer decides that it is human (i.e., forensically significant), then the investigation must move ahead at full speed, which means processing, properly documenting, and collecting the evidence.

Image 2. A typical straight-line pedestrian search in the deep woods. It is obviously not unusual to find animal bones. Decisive, real-time assessment of human vs. animal makes the search efficient and effective.

The forensics team must collect everything of consequence (the evidence) in order to eventually determine who is represented by the bone at the scene, and finally establish whether the death was a homicide, a suicide, accidental, or natural.

On the other hand, if the officer concludes that it is not human, and is in fact an animal bone, then no scene processing is called for, and perhaps the bone is simply thrown away.

Considering both of the above scenarios, it’s clear that the consequences of a wrong decision are very different. In the first example, if it turns out that the bone is actually from an animal rather than a human, then the processing effort has been a waste of time and resources.

Image 3. A bone brought to police under the assumption that it was human. Images were sent to a forensic anthropologist for assessment.

In contrast, if the bone in question was in fact from a human and not an animal, then the police officer has essentially destroyed evidence, which is clearly a serious offense.

Most of the time, if given the choice, the police officer will choose a third way: let an expert in human (and animal) bones make the call. That expert is a forensic anthropologist.

Image 4. This bone was found 30 ft. from a concentration of human remains. Is it human? Hint: It is! This is a human vertebra.

Insufficient Training for Officers

Nowhere throughout the training of a police officer, or even a forensics unit officer, do they receive training in dealing with bones, human or otherwise—even though it’s extremely likely that they will one day be faced with the need to make such a determination in the field. The question is, is there a way to gain an effective knowledge of bones without having to get a Ph.D. in human bone anatomy?

Determining the forensic significance of a scene, or evidence, is an important and oftentimes overlooked stage of the investigation.

Indoor Death Scenes

At an indoor scene, forensic significance is assessed not just relative to the body found in the bedroom, but also when it comes to the blood-drops found across the carpet, leading down the hallway… Were they simply the result of a shaving mishap days before the death event? And what about the overturned lamp in a messy room?

Outdoor Death Scenes

At an outdoor scene, the assessment of forensic significance is even more difficult, because not only are you dealing with human-related artifacts and bodies, but also with naturally occurring parts of the scene: for example, leaves, sticks, and branches covering the body. Were they purposefully placed over the remains right after the moment of death? Or did they naturally fall on top of them weeks and months after the incident?

Above all, one of the first assessments of forensic significance at an outdoor scene relates to whether the remains found are either human or animal.

How the 'Bone Doctors' Develop Their Expertise

Forensic anthropologists are experts in distinguishing human bones from animal bones. Their training begins with human osteology, the study of human bones, often through a 15-week college or university course. Such a course includes intensely studying pictures of bones in books in order to learn the names of bones, as well as bone siding, and even the unique features of bones (e.g., where muscles attach, where nerves and arteries pass through the bones, etc.).

Image 5. 3D scans comparing a human bone (top) to a bear bone.

The final test of human osteology skills is the ability to recognize mere fragments of bones. Such skills can prove tremendously useful in cases involving broken bones in trauma cases, bones modified by animal chewing, or in the processing of fatal fire cases in which the bones are highly altered.

Bringing Animal Bones into the Picture

Once human osteology has been mastered, then a course in animal osteology (often termed faunal analysis, or, since the skill is mostly used for analyzing animal bones from archaeological sites, zooarchaeology) becomes the icing on the cake. Animal bones can be distinguished from human bones rather easily, mostly because humans walk upright, while other animals found across North America do not.

This bipedal upright vs. quadrupedal locomotion results in differences in the shape and details of the entire skeleton: from the skull, the vertebral column, ribs, limbs (arms and legs), “hands” and feet, not to mention the tail.

When bringing a non-law enforcement “expert” into the investigation, one question in the mind of the officer should be: Does this person really know their stuff? Because, again, determining forensic significance is a critical first step. The last thing any officer wants is to discard a human bone after misidentifying it as an animal bone.

Well Beyond Yes or No

So, as one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, Dennis C. Dirkmaat, Ph.D., teaches: “If asked to provide an assessment for police of a bone found in the woods, the best and most definitive response to the question, ‘Is this human?’ is not ‘No, this is not human,’ but rather, ‘This is the distal portion of the right tibia of a juvenile white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).’ From that point, the police will typically not require a second opinion.”

Contacting a forensic anthropologist—a bone expert—is the preferred path when it comes to making the call as to forensic significance. But it’s also true that individuals investigating crime scenes (especially outdoor crime scenes), who are sure to come into contact with many bones during their careers, will always benefit from some basic knowledge and training in human and animal bones.

This is true in relation to all kinds of training on how to recognize the significance of a wide range of other types of natural evidence found in outdoor settings, including forensic entomology, how bodies naturally decompose, plants and animals and even soils in the area, as well as slopes and weather effects.

How to Develop Your OQ (Osteological-intelligence Quotient)

In our modern, connected world, there are many ways to gain this type of knowledge. Books on human osteology are available, and there are even some that compare human bones to animal bones.

Yet the best way to truly learn the bones is to actually handle and study a full set of them in an osteology laboratory, perhaps at a local university—maybe even in a full-semester course, or in a week-long short course. That said, in many cases, collections of real human bones are hard to come by, and students often have to make do with plastic replicas.

On top of that, for most people working at full-time jobs, taking a semester away—even to learn such an important skill as this—simply isn’t an option.

Easy Learning, Thanks to 21st Century VR Technology

Or people can gain this knowledge entirely on their own, right in the comfort of their own homes, even while sitting on the couch at night, or during some free time on the weekend. You may ask: How is this possible? The answer: By taking a VR course in human osteology.

Image 6. Image of a VR headset ready for use.

Using the latest in handheld and desktop submillimeter 3D scanning technology, the creator of the course, Dennis C. Dirkmaat, Ph.D., made it possible for anyone around the world to effectively study and acquire a working knowledge of every bone in the entire human skeleton, with the end result being the same level of expertise gained as that from Dirkmaat’s 15-week in-person university course.

With an affordable and easy-to-find VR headset, it’s possible to experience immersive interaction with the body’s 206 bones, zoom in and examine them up close and from every angle, learn the names of the bones, their locations in the body, as well as their unique identifying features.

Image 7. Student learning how to identify human bones via the VR Human Osteology course.

Learnable Expertise, Unshakable Discernment

For law enforcement and forensics professionals of all kinds, having a firm grasp of human osteology means that whenever a question about the forensic significance of a bone arises, a confident decision can quickly be made. And this can make the difference between launching an investigation in minutes or terminating a full-scale search before it ever begins.

In regard to achieving expertise in the identification of animal bones, a VR course in faunal analysis (zooarchaeology) is currently in development and planned for release later this year.

About the Author
Matthew McMillion is a senior editor and writer at Artec 3D, where he writes about cutting-edge 3D scanning solutions and the brilliant people using them to change the world, scan after scan. Originally from Silicon Valley, McMillion’s experience in the tech industry began in a California software company in the early 1990s. Since then, he’s worked with thousands of partners and clients around the world, in companies and organizations of all sizes and spheres, from aerospace to zoology.

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