The study of human remains has been popularized in the form of crime novels and television shows. But real crime-fighting is more than a thrilling chase and mysterious motive; one of the biggest contributors to catching perpetrators comes from who the victims are and how they met their unfortunate demise. This encompasses the work of a forensic scientist. Forensic Science is a huge topic; you won’t believe the number of academic fields that come together to solve crimes. Let’s talk about just two of these areas in detail to see how they help with investigations: Forensic Entomology and Forensic Anthropology. Both the study of insects, and the study of bones can tell us a lot about human remains, most of which we’ll talk about right here.
Forensic Entomology deals with calculating the post-mortem interval (PMI) by analyzing the type and amount of insects present on a decomposing body. This PMI value tells us how long it has been since the individual has died, and is a critical component of evidence presented in court. Who knew insects could be so helpful this way? These intriguing decomposers not only aid in estimating the time of unexplained death, but can also tell us the location of death, toxins present, animal scavenging, and many more.
Chrysomya albiceps is a species of blowfly that is the first to arrive at the scene of the crime because of their ability to detect strong odors. They are considered one of the most important species in the field of forensic entomology and medicolegal investigations because of their use in determining post-mortem intervals (PMIs) (Grassberger et al. 2003). They are distributed throughout the African continent, Europe, Asia, and Mediterranean regions. However, after the initial phase of decomposition when the blowflies have had their fill, a different set of creepy crawlies come to the scene: beetles. They decompose the body further; in the end, only hair and bones might remain. Such tiny insects can still decompose a whole human body and that’s why team-work is the best.
“How can just the bones of a person tell a story about their ancestry, sex, age, and height? “
So what happens when investigators are too late to find the body? When the bugs have gone through flesh and only bones are left as evidence? It is almost an underrated topic, but this is where forensic anthropology comes into play. Forensic Anthropologists analyze the skeletal remains of humans from questionable deaths. This branch of Anthropology focuses on studying skeletal remains to understand the cause of death, time of death, and most importantly identification. This is not only vital evidence for criminal trials involving homicide cases, but also in identifying victims of mass casualties and other such situations. Now the question is, how do anthropologists determine these things? How can just the bones of a person tell a story about their ancestry, sex, age, and height?
One of the first and foremost keys to the identification of remains is biological sex. There are various ways to pinpoint this from human remains, but the most obvious indicator lies in the pelvis, or hip bone. Male and female pelvis’ have distinct features that set them apart and help in distinguishing sex from bones (Austin and King 2016). This is because females have evolutionarily developed wider pelvic bones to accommodate for giving birth. One of the drawbacks to this method is that many of these sex differences arise only after puberty; so in the unfortunate case of a child’s remains, these bones would not be helpful.
In order to identify the ancestry of remains, there are two main ways: Anthroposcopy and metric methods (Byers 2016). Anthroposcopy is basically a visual assessment of the bones. There are certain characteristics that follow different patterns in different ancestries. For example, remains of European descent tend to have narrower nasal openings, while Asian and African descent have intermediate and wide openings respectively. Metric methods are different from anthroposcopy in that it involves actual math that uses measurements, formulas, and calculations to determine ancestral groups. These comparisons can be very helpful in identifying an individual’s ancestry, but it is important to keep in mind that these observations can be very fluid. After all, biological race does differ from social race; so this approach needs to be taken with caution.
Byers, S. N. (2011). Introduction to forensic anthropology. Boston: Prentice Hall.
Grassberger, Martin, Elisabeth Friedrich, and Christian Reiter. “The blowfly Chrysomya albiceps (Wiedemann) (Diptera: Calliphoridae) as a new forensic indicator in Central Europe.” International journal of legal medicine 117.2 (2003): 75-81.