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Teaching forensic anthropology with a small skeletal collection


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This paper looks at the issues that arise when teaching forensic anthropology with a limited skeletal collection 10-15 full or partial skeletons. It is fine being able to teach using a large collection as many older universities can and those who have been able to build up collections, but what about those Universities or colleges that are only starting to build up a collection or are teaching using whatever has been accumulated over the years? Is it feasible that a small collection can have sufficient variability to support a positive learning experience? Our experience shows that it is possible and this presentation looks at how to make the best use of a small collection including learning, teaching and assessment methodologies which will be of benefit to those faced with this scenario and help others make even better use of a large collection. One surprising feature is the number of non-metric variations enabling students to see that skeletons are different even within such a small population. Making use of these and other features means that teaching is real as morphological variations can be seen in the skeletal remains they are analysing not just in textbooks.

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Teaching forensic anthropology with a small skeletal collection

  1. 1. Teaching Forensic Anthropology with a small skeletal collection David Bryson Department of Biology and Forensic Science For further information please contact me at or via my website
  2. 2. Small collections and learning •What do I mean by a small collection? •What learning are we trying to support •Disadvantages real or imagined?
  3. 3. What do I mean by a small collection?
  4. 4. “It is an easily verified observation that most American Universities do not have departments of anthropology or interdepartmental programs that are prepared to provide adequate training for physical anthropology. Most departments do not have laboratories, skeletal collections, anthropometric instruments, incubators, [etc].” (Lasker 1963 p. 91)
  5. 5. Skeletal collection • The boxes in the corner plus • 5 Complete articulated skeletons
  6. 6. Skeletal collection • The boxes in the corner plus • 5 Complete articulated skeletons
  7. 7. Hundreds and thousands
  8. 8. Hundreds and thousands
  9. 9. Hundreds and thousands
  10. 10. Hundreds and thousands
  11. 11. Hundreds and thousands
  12. 12. “For comparison purposes with modern man, well preserved human skeletons, which can be purchased through any medical supply company generally show more detail and are, therefore, preferable for use in the elementary course to broken bones from archaeological collections.” (Lasker 1963 p.108)
  13. 13. Could we purchase more skeletons? • E-Bay $4,600 • The Bone Room $4-5000 • India export ban in 1987 • China export ban to coincide with Olympics 2008
  14. 14. Even what we have is valuable!
  15. 15. Black Market
  16. 16. What learning are we trying to support?
  17. 17. Modules Year Level Student numbers Techniques in Human Identification 2005/6 2006/7 2007/8 2008/9 2009/10 2010/11 6/HE3 28 26 36 34 43 45 Forensic Anthropology 2011/12 5/HE2 33 Medical Forensics 2011/12 6/HE3 45
  18. 18. Working with skeletal materials It takes time with ‘whole bones’ to develop requisite skills; Recognition - which bone is which Siding - right from left Introducing incomplete bones too early can be counterproductive. Students need to able to get a feel for the weight and appearance of bones.
  19. 19. Biological Forensic Anthropology Physical Key skills Measurement Observation Metric analysis Morphological
  20. 20. Not black and white •Often dealing with probably male or female in physical anthropology. •“... W.M Krogman, who reports that the skull requires the most frequent sexing in medicolegal work, found himself 82-87% correct in sexing 750 specimens. T.D.Stewart determined he could sex 77% accurately by inspection.” (Giles E 1962)
  21. 21. Human variability •We are all different •Most books show only one skeleton. Anatomy texts tend to illustrate one typical skeleton rather than variations. •Seeing a range of bones helps students understand individual variation. •Need enough bones to be able to see
  22. 22. Disadvantages real or imagined?
  23. 23. “For comparison purposes with modern man, well preserved human skeletons, ............. generally show more detail and are, therefore, preferable for use in the elementary course to broken bones from archaeological collections.” (Lasker 1963 p.108)
  24. 24. Sex Age Stature Race Ancestry Unique features 4 PILLARS OF BIOANTHROPOLOGY 5th
  25. 25. Sex Age Stature Ancestry Unique features Predominantly male Mainly Middle aged and older up to 60 Variable from 5’0” to 6’0” Caucasian Surprisingly large number Do have enough females for sexing of skulls/pelvis Post- puberty except for a few bones Safely covered A complex area without sufficient numbers Very limited pathology Review of material
  26. 26. Making up for a limited collection •Strong book collection - Student’s were using so we had an extra £3,500 just for this area and have added more. •Availability of e-journals and e-books •Use of learning materials and problem based learning •Use of photographs of the collection and photography by students.
  27. 27. E-Book options in library
  28. 28. Practical exam •5 Benches are set up with 9 stations each covering an aspect of Human Identification, total 45 students. •Student are given 10 minutes at each station.
  29. 29. Examples of questions Identify the bones in this collection as accurately as possible
  30. 30. Examples of questions What can these bones tell you about the stature? (Assume Male Caucasian)
  31. 31. Individual variation within our collection
  32. 32. Variation between same bone from different individuals
  33. 33. Frontal sinuses
  34. 34. Supraorbital foramen
  35. 35. Supraorbital notch
  36. 36. Ossicle at lambda
  37. 37. Lambdoid ossicles - Wormian bones
  38. 38. Skull showing unusual position of third molar Presence of styloid processes
  39. 39. Variation in septal aperture of the distal humerus
  40. 40. Divided anterior and middle superior facet Single anterior and middle superior facet
  41. 41. Suprascapular notch
  42. 42. Suprascapular notch
  43. 43. No feature
  44. 44. 59 Physical Aging: Ectocranial Suture Closure Description of technique The aim of this technique, described by Meindl and Lovejoy (1985) is to examine the state of clo- sure of the sutures of the skull at defined points on the cranium. From a complete skull two ages can be determined one from using figures for the Ectocranial Vault sutures and the other from the Ectocranial Lateral-Anterior sutures. The sutures of the skull are examined at each of the 10 points given below on the diagram of the skull, 1 cm lengths (Can use a 1cm circle on a scale for this), and given a numerical value according to the stage of closure: Stages of Closure 0 Open; there is no evidence of any ectocranial closure at site. 1 Minimal Closure; Some closure has occurred. This score is given for any minimal to moderate closure i.e. from a single bony bridge across the suture to about up to about 50% synostosis at the site. 2 Significant Closure; there is a marked degree of closure but some portion of the site is not completely fused. 3 Complete Obliteration; Site is completely fused. Figure 1 Two examples of sutures, the left shows minimal closure so would be classified as 1 and the right shows significant closure but still not completely fused so classified as 2. Points of the skull 1. Mid-lambdoid 2. Lambda 3. Obelion 4. Anterior sagittal 5. Bregma 6. Mid-coronal 7. Pterion 8. Sphenofrontal 9. Inferior Sphenofrontal 10.Superior Sphenofrontal Figure 2 Skull right lateral - showing the points for determining stage of ectocranial suture closure. Learning materials 66 Stature estimation using long bones The most accurate combination of bones to use for stature estimation is using the femur and tibia this produces results within 1 standard deviation with 66% confidence, indicated in tables below with an asterisk *. The figures used are those provided by Trotter (1970) from intact long bones. A key aspect of stature estimation is measuring the bone accurately and from the same parts of the bone as the original investigators, Bass (2005) uses Trotter’s figures and gives clear indications for each bone where measurements are to be taken from. Do note that there are variations for the tibia depending on which figures are used as sometimes technicians measured the whole length as below for other studies they didn’t include malleolus (see Bass 2005 p.245). Methodology for measurements of maximum length Humerus Place the head against a fixed vertical, raise the bone slightly and move it up and own as well as from side to side until the maximum length is obtained. Radius From the head to the tip of the styloid process, taken in the same way as the humerus. Ulna From the top of the olecranon process to the tip of the styloid process, in the same way as the humerus. Femur Place the distal condyles against a fixed vertical surface raise the bone slightly and move it up and down as well as from side to side until maximum length is obtained. Tibia Place the end of the medial malleolus against a fixed vertical surface with the bone resting on its anterior (dorsal) surface with its long axis parallel to the measurement scale measure to the most prominent part of the lateral half of the lateral condyle. Fibula Maximum distance between the proximal and distal extremities, in the same way as the humerus. Figure 1 Maximum length of upper limbs - Humerus, radius and ulna (Photographs not to scale).
  45. 45. Faculty of Education, Health and Science PRACTICAL GUIDE TO TECHNIQUES IN HUMAN IDENTIFICATION David Bryson - April 2011 Ongoing development of practical guide with learning activities, videos, slideshows and interactive materials as an interactive e-book/ pdf
  46. 46. References Giles, E & Elliot, O. (1962) Race identification from cranial measurements. Journal of Forensic Sciences 7 (2): 147-157. Lasker, G.W. (1963) The introductory course. In: Mandelbaum, D.G., Lasker, G.W. & Albert, E.M. The teaching of physical anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. The Bone Room, Bone trafficking health/magazine/15-12/ff_bones?currentPage=all