The Estimation of Biological Profile From Unprocessed Human Cremated Remains
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Despite the recent increase in studies that involve the experimental burning of human remains and analysis of heat-induced change both taphonomic and traumatic, research focused on the analysis of thoroughly cremated or calcined bone is rare. The intent of the current study is to add to the existing literature and augment methodologies for the interpretation of severely burned fragmentary remains such as those from mass fatality contexts in which explosions or fire destroy the traditional means for identification. Earlier commercial cremains research focused on mechanically pulverized or processed cremains, post-cremation weights, differences between sexes and molecular composition. In contrast, this research studies human remains cremated in a commercial crematory retort without pulverization that yielded observations of recognizable skeletal elements that survived the firing process. Therefore, this commercial cremains research can be better applied to forensic fire contexts.
The unprocessed cremains of 19 individuals were carefully inventoried and analyzed macroscopically. This study focused on the skeletal elements that lend themselves to the determination of biological profile (e.g. mastoid process, supraorbital ridge, greater sciatic notch) and included the degree of preservation of such elements. A 5-point completeness scoring system was developed to better reflect the variable preservation throughout the sample. Estimates of sex, age-at-death and ancestry were made when preservation permitted. However, the marked destruction of the facial skeleton did not allow for the observation of nonmetric traits necessary for ancestry estimation and the estimation of stature was beyond the scope of the current study. Sex was estimated correctly in 88% of the 18 cases in which preservation allowed for an estimate. Age-at-death estimation was correct in only 68% of the 16 cases for which the survival of the auricular surface and pubic symphyses allowed for the generation of an age range.
The successful application of traditional anthropological techniques such as auricular surface aging and metric sexing of the postcranial skeleton, to the calcined remains in the current study demonstrates that valuable information can still be gleaned from a human body that has undergone sustained exposure to temperatures exceeding 870˚C(1600˚F). These findings are encouraging because they suggest that the concept of burned beyond recognition is a myth rather than the inevitable result of fire acting upon human remains.