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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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skull

Bone Biographies

 

How Bone Biographies
"Get Written"

 
How Bone Biographers Make the ID

Like a fingerprint, a bone is unique. Its distinctive features show up under close examination.

By X-Ray

Radiographs or CT scans of bone and teeth give the best views of skeletal details. For positive bone-based IDs, before and after views are needed. Any part of the skeleton, from head to feet, can confirm an ID — or rule it out.

In modern cases, when investigators tentatively identify skeletal remains, they try to obtain x-rays of that person taken in life, usually after an injury or during dental care. Then, they compare an antemortem view (taken before death) with a postmortem view, looking for matches feature by feature.

left "total hip replacement," femur with surgical implants and prosthesis
Left "total hip replacement," femur with surgical implants and prosthesis. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

By Medical Condition

Skeletal injuries in life can sometimes identify human remains. Antemortem fractures may cause unique shape changes to bone, which can be seen in x-ray records made during a person's life.

Surgeries may also leave physical evidence in the skeleton. Orthopedic implants such as artificial joints, plates, nails, screws, and wires are especially good markers for identification. They not only confirm a surgical procedure during life but may also provide model or serial numbers. Numbers on a surgical appliance can be used to trace distribution to a specific hospital and patient.

By DNA

We all inherit genes from a mother and father, in a one-of-a-kind combination. Our individual set of genes guides the production of enzymes, which in turn control cells, which form tissues, which make every one of us a unique living organism. Almost all cells, including bone cells, contain DNA the chemical codes of our genes.

three generations of one family
Three generations: Marion Rose Abbitt, Merry Abbitt Outlaw, and Meredith Abbitt Outlaw. Images courtesy of: Alain C. Outlaw, Archaeological & Cultural Solutions, Inc., Williamsburg, Virginia

Biomedical technology makes it possible to use DNA in forensic and archaeological investigations. When there is little other physical evidence, we can sometimes determine a person's sex from DNA in bone fragments. Using DNA to prove the identity of a specific person is also possible, but only if a DNA sample from a relative, or from the person in question, is available for comparison.

 

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