New approach to skeletal age-estimation can help identify child remains

Deanna Smith, an SFU archeology MA student and study lead author, measures a bone in the lab. Credit: Kobie Huang
Deanna Smith, an SFU archeology MA student and study lead author, measures a bone in the lab. Credit: Kobie Huang

Forensic teams challenged with identifying skeletal remains may benefit from a new method of determining age in the child remains when traditional methods, such as dental records, aren't available. New research from SFU archeologists finds that measuring cranial bones can provide one of the most comprehensive methods of estimating juvenile age. Their study is published in the journal Forensic Science International.

The study lead Deanna Smith, an SFU archeology MA student and member of the Wikwemikong First Nation said, estimating the age of child remains is important because it helps with identification purposes, especially in criminal investigations. 

Determining the age of remains can help to reduce the pool of possibilities from a list of hundreds of missing children of various ages, for example.

Researchers have typically determined age via teeth or measuring the length of long bones (in the upper or lower limbs). For their study, the researchers measured the crania and mandibular bones (located in the skull) of child skeletal remains of known sex and age from natural history museum collections in Lisbon, Portugal, and London, U.K. The bones were from 185 children from birth to 12.9 years who lived during the 1700s to 1900s. 

According to SFU forensic anthropologist Hugo Cardoso, age, in combination with sex, context, and other characteristics of the skeleton, helps to narrow down who the child could be from a list of potential candidates. Families of the missing children can then provide a DNA sample to confirm the identity of the child whose remains have been found, leading to closure for the family.

Researchers assist in various situations where identification of remains is sought, from criminal investigations to cases with insufficient medical records to estimate age. 

Cardoso, chair of the Department of Archeology and co-director of the Centre for Forensic Research said, as physical anthropologists, we're often called to identify found human remains, which then are subjected to a medicolegal death investigation. We are also involved in the study of remains found intentionally in archeological projects, such as excavating a prehistoric or historic cemetery. In other archeological contexts, excavating cemeteries can provide a snapshot of the entire population within a certain period of time and geographical area, allowing researchers to learn more about how people lived in the past. Estimating age can help researchers to reconstruct the demographics of the population and gain a better understanding of aspects of nutrition, health, and stress during the growth years.

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