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New approach to skeletal age-estimation of child remains

Forensic teams challenged with identifying skeletal remains may benefit from a new method of determining age in child remains when traditional methods, such as dental records, aren't available. New research from SFU archaeologists 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.

New approach to skeletal age-estimation of child remains
Child burial dating to the 18th dynasty (1549/1550 BC to 1292 BC) in Egypt's Aswan
[Credit: Egypt. Ministry of Antiquities]

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

New approach to skeletal age-estimation of child remains
Deanna Smith, an SFU archaeology MA student and study lead author,
measures a bone in the lab [Credit: Kobie Huang]

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. "As physical anthropologists, we're often called to identify found human remains, which then are subjected to a medicolegal death investigation," says Cardoso, chair of the Department of Archaeology and co-director of the Centre for Forensic Research. "We are also involved in the study of remains found intentionally in archaeological projects, such as excavating a prehistoric or historic cemetery."

Cardoso adds that in other archaeological 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 demographics of the population and gain a better understanding of aspects of nutrition, health and stress during the growth years."

Author: Melissa Shaw | Source: Simon Fraser University [October 06, 2021]

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