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The stories hidden in your bones: How a forensic anthropologist would identify your body

Forensic anthropologist Prof Dame Sue Black talks to Amy Barrett about what it’s like to dissect a human body, how a single bone can tell a whole story, and the ways in which we can identify perpetrators from the backs of their hands.

Prof Dame Sue Black is an anatomist and forensic anthropologist. She is currently the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University.

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Over the course of her career, Sue has worked with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United Nations, helping to identify victims and perpetrators from their body parts.

Her first book, All That Remains, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Her new book, Written In Bone, is a fascinating and gripping account of the stories that each of our body parts can tell, long after we have passed away.

What was it like, the first time you worked with human remains?

The first time I worked with human remains was in the dissecting room in Aberdeen University. I would have been 18 or 19 at the time. You walked into this room, a huge room that was almost like a conservatory because it had a glass ceiling and opaque glass windows all the way around. It had the most beautiful parquet flooring. It was a really strange room.

There were around 50 metal tables, on top of each was obviously a body, each one covered in a white cotton sheet. So, when you walked into the room, all you saw were these white mounds in rows and lines along the room. The next thing you do is you take off the white sheet and you’re faced with the dead. You have to touch them, and you feel really embarrassed about touching. This is somebody else’s body, who’s dead.

Then they expect you to put a blade onto a scalpel handle. And no one tells you how to do that. You always end up slicing your fingers. And then you have to make that first cut. It’s something you never forget. It’s a Rubicon that you can only cross once.

Can you tell us a bit about your new book, Written in Bone?

One of my areas of expertise is in criminal dismemberments. They [the publishers] asked me to take each section of the body as a chapter, and [imagine] that was the only section of the body available to me in a criminal dismemberment, and to say what I would be able to tell from that section of the body.

I was able to use some of my case histories, to show cases where, in fact, that part of the body had been particularly important in the investigation, or the identification of the person or whatever it may have been.

What is criminal dismemberment?

Criminal dismemberment is the criminal act of reducing an intact human body into specific pieces. It is a rare crime and we maybe have three or four cases in the UK in a year where a body will have been dismembered.

Put your imagination on. You’ve just murdered somebody. Most people don’t expect or intend to murder someone. It often happens as a result of a heated event, too much alcohol, drugs, a fight, whatever it may be, and somebody loses their life.

At that point, when that happens, you’re faced with a dilemma. What do you do? You would like to think all of us would go to pick up the phone to the police, to the emergency services and say, this is what I’ve done. But not everybody does. Some people go into a panic and run away, and the body will be left for somebody else to find. Or, they will think, ‘I need to get rid of the body, I need to hide it.’

Read more about bones:

A whole body, especially of an adult, is a heavy and unwieldy thing. So, what they may think is, ‘I can reduce that body into pieces, then I can get rid of the pieces more easily.’ Most dismemberment is about transportation of the remains for dumping it.

For some, it’s about disfigurement, a way to take off the features of an individual so that it will make it more difficult for them to be recognised. But of course, now with DNA, that’s less of a reason to do it than it perhaps was in the past.

If we find body parts, what can we tell from them that will start the criminal investigation?

What you have in front of you are parts of a human jigsaw. It’s your job to try and piece them together so that you can create the story of what happened to the individual, but more importantly, from the field of forensic anthropology, who they were when they were alive.

If you’re certain it’s human, the question will be: how long has the individual been dead? If the body is intact or still fleshed, then you know that question isn’t so important.

But if these are fragments of bone, it becomes very important, because technically they could be archaeological. And if these bone fragments are hundreds of years old, you’re not going to set up a murder investigation.

Prof Sue Black © Janice Aitken
Prof Sue Black’s forensic expertise has taken her to Iraq, Sierra Leone and Grenada, and she also assisted in victim identification in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami © Janice Aitken

If the body part is still fleshed, what can you tell from its limbs?

One of the cases that I talk about in my new book was known as the ‘limbs in the loch’ case.

There are police divers that train off a particular pier on Loch Lomond, and one day they found a collection of black plastic bags at the bottom of the loch. They picked them up thinking that it was material put in there for them to train. When they opened up the plastic bags, they realised that they were actually looking at human limbs that had been severed. This wasn’t a training exercise at all. It was an actual case.

From the bones, you could tell whether the individual was adult or not – he was an adult, but a young adult. We could tell if it was male or female because there was very extensive hair patterning on the skin that you are highly unlikely to have on the thigh, for example, of a female.

We could calculate what his foot size and shoe size was, and from there calculate the length of the leg, and then his height. The skin told us something about his ancestry. So very quickly, what we had was a young adult male, probably late teens or early 20s, around six foot in height, and white.

The police always say you need four things: age, sex, ancestry and height. They can then consult the missing persons list, to see if there’s anybody in the area who fits that profile. Once you know who the individual is, then you can really start to investigate the surroundings associated with their death.

Forensic anthropologist Prof Dame Sue Black talks to Amy Barrett about what it’s like to dissect a human body, how a single bone can tell a whole story, and the ways in which we can identify perpetrators from the backs of their hands.

Read more about forensic science:

Is technology affecting your job, or will it always remain very hands-on?

Tech has helped when it comes to the other side of work that I do, which is identification of individuals from images. These images are usually of child sexual abuse, and the part of the perpetrator that is in that image is often the back of their hand.

We’ve been doing a lot of research, from an anatomical perspective, on how to identify perpetrators from the backs of their hands. The pattern of superficial veins on the back of your right hand will be different to your left, and they’ll be different between identical twins.

If you look at the pattern of skin creases across the knuckles of your fingers, they’re different on each one. If you have freckles or birthmarks or moles, they too will be in different places. There are all sorts of pieces of anatomical clues wrapped up in the back of your hand.

Creases in the skin on the back of the knuckles © Getty Images
Prof Sue Black has helped develop ways to identify criminals, using the creases and vein patterns on their hands © Getty Images

We’ve been working on this for about 16 years now. We’ve helped the police to secure about 30 life sentences and about 400 years of prison sentencing.

The next stage is in relation to AI and machine learning. So, when the police download images from somebody’s phone or computer, they may have hundreds of thousands of images. It’s not possible for us to go through them all. But we can train a computer to find a hand in an image, and if you can find a hand, what’s the vein pattern? What’s the knuckle crease pattern?

You then have a pattern for that individual. You create an algorithm, and you can then run that algorithm through the database of hundreds, thousands and sometimes even millions of police images and say, does this person appear in any other images? And if they do, then what you can start to do, hopefully,
is connect cases that you weren’t able to connect before.

That’s incredible.

Science is cool! You know, many of the problems of the world, if not all, have got some form of a solution in a bit of science. To be able to harness that power of science to make things better, to ensure that the right people are put on the right side of the bars, is all incredibly important for health and wellbeing, not just of a person, but of a community and of a nation.

Science has just got so much to offer and so many questions not yet answered. Isn’t that the most exciting detective investigation ever?

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Written in Bone: Hidden stories in what we leave behind by Prof Sue Black is out now (£18.99, Doubleday).

Written in Bone: Hidden stories in what we leave behind by Prof Sue Black is out now (£18.99, Doubleday)