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A Guided Tour Of The Bone Lab – Or, Forensic Anthro 101

In which we find out just how much you can learn from a skeleton.

Last week, NC State hosted the ScienceOnline2012 conference, bringing together a wide variety of people with an interest in communicating about science. During the conference, I had the opportunity to lead a small group of attendees on a tour of the forensic anthropology labs at NC State. The folks on the tour really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d round up some information about the facility for those of you who couldn’t make it.

The tour was led by Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC state who specializes in forensic anthropology – the study of bones. We began in the osteology lab, or “dry lab,” where students get their first introduction to forensic anthro. They learn how to identify all of the bones in the human body, working with both cast models and real human bones.

After a look around the dry lab, we were taken into the forensic analysis lab, or “wet lab.” The wet lab is where researchers work on active criminal investigations and missing-persons cases, so there are special security measures in place – and no photos allowed. Also, it is called the wet lab because this is where researchers deal with human remains that may not be fully skeletonized.

Ann Ross, our tour guide

Ross had laid out an unidentified skeleton, to illustrate the basics of forensic anthropology. How do you gauge the deceased’s biological sex? Ancestry? Height?

Robin Lloyd, of Scientific American, did a nice write-up of our discussion, so I won’t repeat it in detail. But I will offer an overview of the sheer variety of research questions that were discussed, with related links.

One area Ross’s lab focuses on is what we can learn from the human skull. Ross, along with a colleague from Florida State University, has developed software called 3D-ID, which allows forensic investigators to determine a body’s biological sex and ancestral background using only measurements of the skull. This has very real utility for both criminal investigations and anthropological research when investigators are faced with an incomplete skeleton.

Ross’s research has also made significant contributions to the field in terms of what forensic investigators can learn from the skulls of children. And, of particular use for anthropologists working on historic sites, Ross has also shown that the differences between male and female skulls are becoming less pronounced in some populations.

The femur, or thigh bone, can also offer insights into what a person was like when alive. Skeletal remains usually reveal very little about a person’s weight, yet this can be an important factor when it comes to identifying human remains. Ross’s lab published research last year showing that the femur can sometimes tell forensic investigators whether a person was  overweight. Ross and co-author Gina Agostini hypothesize that the femur of an overweight person is more robust because it bears more weight, but also because overweight individuals move and walk differently to compensate for their greater mass.

And now Ross is trying to use forensic anthropology to help save lives. Based on her analysis and assessment of remains in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Ross has developed a data-driven approach to identifying populations that are at increased risk of genocide. Specifically, the approach uses health-based criteria to identify populations that are extremely marginalized. Coupled with existing social and economic risk factors, this approach could help the international community determine when and where to step in and prevent tragedy on a grand scale.

All of these topics came and went in a flurry of questions and answers, leant a surreal air by the fact that we were standing feet away from a human skeleton – not a prop from a Halloween party. Then we were off, to get a cup of coffee and catch a bus.

It was, in short, a hell of a tour.

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  1. I am interested in learning more about the Bone lab as well as the latest technology used to assist in identification. Hoping more tours will be offered soon.

  2. This is super fascinating and I am interested in learning more. I have a very intense interest in human bones. I would love to take a tour of this lab.