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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.).
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
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.
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
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.