'Bones' Author Kathy Reichs Reveals Shocking Facts About Human Remains
The bestselling author of 16 Temperance Brennan novels in the "Bones" series and a producer of the Fox TV series of the same name, which premieres its ninth season September 16--and a forensic anthropologist herself--Kathy Reichs has done a lot of thinking about human remains, and some of what she's discovered will shock you. As she puts it, death "is where it gets sexy. You may be bloated from drowning, digested by a bear, burnt to a crisp in a house fire or decapitated by a cannon ball, but your bones will reveal just what happened."
You don't want to sit next to bones on a train. They are talky, talky creatures. They can't keep secrets, they remember youthful indiscretions you'd rather forget, they tattle about your embarrassing weight issues. Basically, you'd de-friend them if you could. The good news is that they don't usually tell their stories until you're gone. And they tell them only to people skilled at listening. Like me. (Of course, then I write it down and share the information with anyone who wants to know, but that's not the point.) Here are five of the most fascinating things you can learn from bones.
We are not alone on the planet
When identifying remains, the first step is to make sure they are human. If each bone left behind by a hunter were human, I'd never set foot in the forest again. Happily, most often a scavenging animal has gathered a treasure trove of former snacks, the collection of which involved no human demise.
Human skeletons share similarities with other species, so animal bones can be mistaken for Homo sapiens. Surprisingly, humans and giraffes have the same number of neck bones. In my fifth book, "Bare Bones," Tempe Brennan examines bear paws misidentified as human hands. This mistake is not uncommon with the untrained. Pig ribs look like human ribs. I try not to think about that when gnawing through a rack of North Carolina barbecued pork ribs. Ditto chicken drumsticks, often misidentified as human metacarpals.
Large animals have cortical bone that is thicker and denser than that in humans, so differentiation isn't difficult. Giraffes, cows, sheep and horses have to walk immediately after birth to avoid predators. Bone is laid down fast and strong. Under a microscope, bone structure is brick-like, with cells overlapping for toughness. Human bone has longer to form since our babies don't immediately have to support themselves. Human bone cells, called osteons, developed slowly and resemble the concentric rings of an old tree trunk.
Babies are not like adults
They say you come into this world with nothing, but it's not true. With regard to bones, babies have more than adults. An infant is born with about 300. To squeeze through the birth canal, newborn skeletons are pliable, with lots of temporary cartilage. With age, cartilage ossifies. A human adult has only 206 bones. Only one ear ossicle is fully formed at birth. The rest calcify at a predictable rates, so the stage of bone maturation can be used to estimate age within two to three years. As sex steroid levels rise during puberty, bone maturation accelerates. The younger a person, the higher the level of accuracy. Past maturity, it's all downhill. Ribs are helpful in identifying older people, becoming craggy and pitted where they connect to the sternum.
Skeletal age estimation is important in unknown victim identification, but it can also resolve uncertainty when documentary proof is unavailable for living individuals. In India, the prosecution is testing bone to verify the age of a man accused in a rape. The defendant says he is a minor, shy of 18 by a few months. Forensic testing will determine the validity of his claims.
Bones aren't politically correct
Bones label you. Old Hispanic male. Middle-aged black female. Short fat white dude. Bones talk about people the way you never would.
Remember Pat, the gender-neutral character on Saturday Night Live? Ambiguity is only skin-deep. Bones aren't unisex. Male bones are generally larger. Men have a narrow, deep pelvis, women a wider, shallower pelvis, better suited for carrying and delivering a baby. For quick field identification, I stick my thumb in the sciatic notch on the fan-shaped pelvis bone. If there's wiggle room, it's female; a tight fit indicates male.
Racial classification is inexact, particularly since the isolated populations of the world have continued to intermingle. But most skulls can be identified as consistent with a person of European (Caucasoid), African (Negroid) or Asian/Native American (Mongoloid) ancestry. When it comes to race, the nose knows and the jawbone talks. The nasal openings of whites are narrow, those of blacks broad, those of Asians somewhere in between. Asian mandibles tend to be even along the lower edge, whereas those of Africans and Europeans undulate slightly. The lower faces of blacks project more than those of other racial groups.
Height is a snap if you have the long bones. Weight is tougher, at best an approximation based on remodeling at the joints. Corpulence accelerates wear and tear on the back and knees. Truncal obesity with a panniculus (fancy-talk for a big belly) causes anterior bending. This places compressive force on the lower back, resulting in disc pathology.
Bones Know You
Your mother always warned that your face would freeze like that. Not true, but if a person repeats an action throughout life, a forensic anthropologist can read it in his or her bones. Markers of occupational stress (MOS's) paint a picture of how you lived. For example, bony ridges in the wrist indicate a person worked with his or her hands, perhaps as a seamstress or chef.
Arthritis is the most useful of all diseases for reconstructing lifestyle. One study found a high incidence of arthritis in the left temporomandibular joint in the Sadlermuit women of northern Canada. Seems the ladies were softening leather by chewing it with their left side dentition. Musculo-stress markers (enthesopathies) are another well-studied class of MOS. When muscles attached to bone are stressed by daily repetitive tasks, increased blood flow stimulates osteoblast formation. People who carry or lift or pull immensely heavy loads develop extremely pronounced muscle attachment sites.
Specific incidents also tell the tale of a life. Old injuries remain evident long after healing. A broken arm. A craniotomy. Illness and malnutrition slow bone formation, leaving visible lines cutting across the shafts of long bones when viewed on x-ray.
Bones talk to the bitter end
This is where it gets sexy. You may be bloated from drowning, digested by a bear, burnt to a crisp in a house fire or decapitated by a cannon ball, but your bones will reveal just what happened.
Sharp instruments, such as knives or machetes, leave nicks and kerf marks if driven deeply enough into bone. I once matched a single bone to a type of saw many years after the murder and dismemberment had occurred.
A bullet passing through bone may leave a distinct entrance and exit hole. These are useful in determining bullet trajectory. And, if you're lucky, bullets may also leave fragments behind.
The hyoid is a small, U-shaped bone hanging in muscle in the center of the throat. A broken hyoid suggests strangulation. Sadly, most poisons fail to show up in bone. Unless it's a heavy metal toxin ingested by the victim over an extended period, the forensic anthropologist is out of luck here.
There's a thought. If you want to get away with murder on an episode of "Bones," stick with non-arsenic poisoning. You didn't get that tip that from me.
Kathy Reichs' first novel, "Déjà Dead," catapulted her to fame when it became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her other Temperance Brennan novels include "Death du Jour," "Deadly Decisions," "Fatal Voyage," "Grave Secrets," "Bare Bones," "Monday Mourning," "Cross Bones," "Break No Bones," "Bones to Ashes," "Devil Bones," "206 Bones," "Spider Bones," "Flash and Bones," "Bones Are Forever" and "Bones of the Lost," in addition to "Virals," "Seizure" and "Code," three young adult novels following the adventures of Temperance Brennan's niece. Dr. Reichs is also a producer of the hit FOX TV series, "Bones," which is based on her work and her novels.