When skeletal remains are discovered three important questions must be asked before determining how an investigation should proceed. These questions are:
1. Are skeletal remains of human or non-human origin?
2. How many individuals are represented?
3. What is the antiquity of the remains?
Last months feature showed how the first question can sometimes be initially difficult to determine. This is especially true in situations where bone may still be covered by dry tissue or when skeletal material is fragmented or altered by the environment. The second question may also be difficult depending on which bones are recovered. As with the first question determining the number of individuals represented when remains are fragmented can be daunting task. Other variables such as alteration by fire or environment can make the determination of the number of individuals present a slow and complicated task. Such complexities also often have influences on determining the third question. Trying to calculate the antiquity of skeletal remains frequently results in ranges rather then narrowly specific timeframes. The environment in which skeletal remains are placed can have dramatically different effects on how that skeletal material will be altered over time. Because of the variability in conditions that can affect skeletal remains the context in which remains are discovered often becomes an important clue for determining how long they have been at that location.
This months case begins ironically enough on Halloween with two individuals participating in the popular sport of geocaching in the desert Southwest of Boise. However, instead of locating the geocache they were in search of they came across a most unusual find. Hidden in a crevasse with large rocks placed over the top appeared to be a human skull and various other bones. At this point the individuals contacted the Ada County Sheriff about their strange find. The Sheriff in turn contacted the Ada County Coroner’s Office with a report of possible discovered human remains.
Upon arrival at the scene investigators from the Ada County Coroner’s Office quickly confirmed the remains to be of human origin. A cursory examination revealed the presence of a second human skull indicating this particular site contained the remains of at least two individuals. Photographs and measurements were taken documenting the exact location and layout of the remains. The remains were then removed in a methodological fashion and packaged for transport. After removal of the skeletal remains additional pieces of evidence located within the site were cataloged and collected.
Picture of Scene Undisturbed
Back at the forensic lab the skeletal remains were carefully laid out and inventoried. This inventory confirmed the presence of two individuals. One individual’s remains consisted only of a skull. The second individual consisted of a nearly complete skull and mandible along with a mostly complete post-cranial skeleton. A detailed analysis by two separate and independent physical anthropologists came to the following conclusions:
The remains consisting of only a skull were determined to be that of a juvenile male. The skull was given an estimated age of six years based on dental eruption patterns and a combination of skeletal traits. There was no trauma or attributes that could be used to determine a cause of death. Estimation of ancestry of the individual was non-conclusive with both Caucasoid and Mongoloid traits being observed.
Six year old male
The skull exhibited two other interesting traits. The first of these is that the remaining teeth had been glued in place. The second was that the words “FRONTAL”, “OCCIPITAL”, and “PATIETAL” were all written on the skull. Each of these names corresponded correctly to the bone upon which they were written.
Photograph depicting the word “FRONTAL” on skull.
Photograph depicting the word “OCCIPITAL” written on back of skull.
The second individual which was composed of a nearly complete skeleton was determined to be a male somewhere around sixteen years of age. Age estimates were based on both dental eruption and suture closure rates. Estimation of ancestry of the individual was non-conclusive with both Caucasoid and Mongoloid traits being observed.
16 year old male. Fractures present determined to be post mortem.
Examination of the post-cranial skeleton revealed that all remains were consistent with belonging to one individual. The post cranial skeleton was consistent with that of a sixteen year old male. The post cranial skeleton contained a healed fracture of the right ulna. There was no trauma or pathology to the remains to indicate a cause of death for the second individual.
At this point it was determined that the remains were limited to that of two individuals. The third question, time since death, was more difficult to determine. However in this case several conclusions were reached.
First, the comingled nature of the remains suggests that the location where they were found was not where they were first interred. Secondly, the skeletal material is dry and non-greasy. This would suggest that they were either commercially processed or had been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time. In this case the skeletal material does show signs of weathering. This weathering is limited to the surfaces that were exposed at the location of discovery. However the surfaces that were protected from the elements also appeared dry and non-greasy. Thirdly neither individual had any type of mummified tissue or soil clinging to the bone itself. This leads one to suspect that they had been cleaned at some point before being deposited at the site. All these factors would seem to support the theory that the individuals were all ready skeletonized when they were placed in the crevasse. Taking these variables into account consulting anthropologists put an estimated time that the skeletons were placed in the crevasse sometime within the last forty years. Analysis of the age of the actual bones estimated them to be less then one hundred years old.
In addition to the skeletons several other pieces of evidence were collected at the scene of discovery. These included:
- A Plastic Hotel from a Monopoly Set
- Leather Shoes- with modern machine stitching
- Several Pieces of cardboard
- Various Non-human animal bones including those from sheep, cow and other small mammals.
Information provided by Hasbro who produce the game Monopoly stated that hotels for the game were first made of plastic in the mid- 1960’s.
Based on the examination of the remains and an evaluation of the evidence it is suspected that the skeletons were likely part of a private collection that had been disposed of improperly in the desert. Because the proper names of bones were written on one of the skulls it is possible it had once been used in a classroom setting. The presence of cardboard, leather shoes and a plastic monopoly piece may indicate that the remains were originally in a cardboard box that had since disintegrated. The machine stitching on the leather shoes would seem to support the age estimations of the remains being less then one hundred years old.
Based on this evaluation of evidence it was determined that the remains did not warrant further investigation by the Ada County Coroners Office. The remains were subsequently turned over to the Bureau of Land Management who maintained jurisdiction over the area in which they were found.