Who Owns Our Dead?
Corroded In Action
Archaeology At Sea
Heathrow Today, Tomorrow The World
Home and Heritage
Yorkshire's Holy Secret
tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
For a TV archaeologist to confuse human with sheep bones is embarrassing. Reports that remains found in Australia were a missing British backpacker, before police said they were ‘possibly a horse or a cow, we’re not sure’, were distressing. Terry O’Connor offers a lay person’s guide to making that tricky but crucial distinction
Old bones come to light with remarkable frequency, and the finder is usually not an archaeologist trained in comparative anatomy. Police and coroners’ offices therefore find themselves taking action over skeletal remains that turn out to be of more veterinary than forensic interest. Of course, that is better than having human remains go unreported, but human bones are actually quite easy to recognise. We walk upright, we do not eat grass, we have large brains, we do not have horns or antlers: a few moments’ consideration of what is distinctive about us can help to confirm, or rule out, the presence of human bones.
First, take a long look at yourself. Although clothes and rippling muscles disguise the bones to some extent, the size and shape of the human body reflect the underlying skeleton. Could the suspicious bones have come from something of human size? Most of the animals likely to be encountered in chance finds of old bones have limb bones much shorter and more robust than ours. If the bone is basically a tube with a smooth joint surface at either end, it is probably a limb bone. Is it about the right length to fit between, say, hip and knee or elbow and wrist, or is it much too short? If it is of about that length, is it slender enough to fit within the typical diameter of a human arm or leg, once muscles have been added? The relatively large limb bones of horses and cows may be nearly as long as ours, but they are massive in comparison. To fit a horse radius into a human forearm would require a physique to rival Popeye.
Second, look for some teeth. Even if the shape of animal teeth is unfamiliar, a roughly cuboid or distinctly conical structure with a covering of hard mineral (enamel) and what could feasibly be roots is likely to be a tooth. Again, how big is it? Could you get a dozen of those in your mouth? Does it look anything like the teeth that you clean every day?
Third, hips and shoulders. The pelvic bone in most mammals is a broad, flat structure with a distinctive cup-shaped concave joint (the hip joint, or acetabulum). If you can recognise the pelvic bone, bear in mind that in humans it is much broader than in most four-legged mammals. If the bone is appreciably longer than it is broad, then it is unlikely to be human. The human shoulder blade is a thin triangle of bone with a thick crest along one edge, and a shallow, concave joint surface in one corner. In the mammals most often encountered in chance finds of old bones, it is generally either an isosceles triangle with the joint surface at the apex (cattle, horses, sheep), or distinctly D-shaped (dog). Size is also a good clue, as our own shoulder blade is quite easy to feel and measure through the overlying back muscles.
Fourth, anything distinctive? Horses, cows, sheep and deer have toe bones that reflect the shape of their hooves. Think of the cloven-hoof footprint of a cow: humans do not have toes like that. Or horns? The horns of cows and sheep grow over a bony core that resembles the horn in shape, so anything with a slightly twisted cone of rough-surfaced bone is unlikely to be human. Humans do have a large brain, so look for bits of bone that might be fragments of a large, hollow sphere.
These are just very simple things to look for. The main point is to remember that each of us carries a human skeleton around inside us, and the possibility of human remains can often be ruled out simply by trying to imagine the old bones fitted inside our body. Asking the question ‘If these are human bones, which part of the skeleton could that be?’ is a good start.
Finally, if in any doubt, seek help. It is better to be mildly embarrassed in retrospect than for significant human remains to go unrecognised.
Terry O’Connor is a Professor at York University Specialising in Vertebrate Zooarchaeology
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005