Introduction to human osteology

Human osteology is the scientific study of human bones. The bones and teeth of a human skeleton are more resistant to the various kinds of decay than are the surrounding soft tissues of the body. When decomposition removes these soft tissues, the remaining skeleton often provides the last surviving record of an individual's existence. Skeletal remains can therefore be of great importance in the potential identification of an unknown individual. Osteologists performing an investigation will employ their knowledge of the human skeleton in order to learn as much as practically possible about the remains. Sometimes, this will be done within a legal context, where the primary objective is to identify the person and describe any events prior, during or after death that may be of interest in a court of law. This type of investigation must therefore be based on solid scientific principles which can be presented as legal evidence, and is generally termed forensic osteology.

The second context in which human osteological knowledge is often applied is historical. The remains may be termed 'ancient', or alternatively they may be relatively recent, such as up to few hundred years ago. It has been said (in very general terms) that 'legal' interest in bones begins to dissipate after about 50 years postmortem. This is where historical interest may begin. Osteological analysis of material from a historical standpoint is usually undertaken as part of archaeological research. Archaeologists concentrate on cultural residues of former human occupations, and therefore stand to gain a great deal of valuable information from the skeletal remains of those once living in that culture. The human skeletal remains from HMS Pandora fit neatly into this context.

The valuable information that human skeletal remains can provide makes the recovery and conservation of the bones critically important. Careless recovery or treatment can lead to a permanent loss of information or may generate a misleading interpretation. In simple terms, skeletal material reflects the combined action of genetic information and environmental influence. The skeleton forms the structural framework of the body and provides the means of support and physical diversity. Bones are, in essence, an expression of the soft tissues in which they were embedded during life. They retain the signature of features such as muscular attachments, ligaments and organs. Through diet, teeth can be viewed as a direct interface between the individual and the environment. Since teeth are known to be the hardest substance in the human body, they can survive in a better condition for longer periods, and are therefore valuable in an osteological investigation (if recovered). Additionally, the skeleton will often demonstrate the presence of disease or injuries sustained during life. With a combination of detailed knowledge, skill and careful study, an osteologist can use the skeleton to estimate the individual's age, sex, race and stature as well as any forms of pathology or anomalies and variants which may be present. Such information can be used to build up a profile of the individual, and provides a scientific basis for valuable information that could otherwise be lost (White 1991; Bass 1987).


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Last updated: Thu Mar 28 2002