Skull: the Minnehaha Park bones studied

9:41 PM, Apr 18, 2011   |    comments
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RAMSEY, Minn. -- Finding the truth about old bones has often been the job of Minnesota's top forensic anthropologist, Susan Myster, Ph.D. The Hamline University professor is one of only a few dozen board-certified forensic anthropologists in the U.S.

Myster is a Hamline University graduate who returned to the Saint Paul school in 1990 to teach. That is still her "day job," but she is called upon regularly to assist local authorities when they come upon human remains. Myster said she follows a number of investigative steps. "We try to determine how long the body has been there, how long has it been where it was found?"

She examines the remains at the Midwest Medical Examiners' Office in Ramsey, Minnesota to determine the sex, age at death, stature and the era in which the individual lived. Her lab at Midwest contains several full skeletal remains, but most recently, she made determinations about remains that consisted of a single human skull.

"The first thing I try to determine is what we call a 'biological profile'. That particular skull was a male individual, between the ages of 35-45-50 years of age. We could not do stature because there were no bones from the post cranial skeleton. It looked, from our techniques that we applied, that it was someone likely of mixed heritage: American white, American black," said Myster.

The skull was found by hikers near the off-leash dog park at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. Myster was able to report that it was the skull of a male who lived in the 1800's.

Her methods of making the determinations were all science and observation. "What we began to see with that particular skull is that one side of the skull was more worn than the other side. So, probably the skull was laying on the side and this side of the skull was more exposed to the wind and the Sun and the rain, etc," said Myster.

Much of her work is done silently with calipers and forms where measurements and observations of "morphology" are noted. "Morphology" refers to the shape, contours and texture of the bone.

"Basically, the difference between males and females is that females tend to be smaller. They tend to have less robust or rugged muscle attachment areas, than do males. One of the things that we look at is how prominent, the brow ridges are and males tend to have more prominent, protruding brow ridges. Females have more vertical foreheads and males tend to have more receding frontal bones or forehead region," said Myster.

One thing that might surprise some is that there is no "gender" in forensic anthropology, according to Myster. "Estimating whether we have a male or a female, we never use the term 'gender' because gender is a social construct. It is how you are recognized socially," said Myster.

The measurements she takes are compared to those in a national data base. "We have this database, a forensic anthropology database, and it is curated at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and when people across the country work on forensic cases and those cases are ultimately identified, (that is) they ultimately find out who the skiletonized remains once were, then people send in their data that they collected. And then you are able to assess if your techniques work and you send in your measurements and you send in the actual information about the person," explained Myster.

"The database consists of a number of samples of known individuals. We call them reference samples because they are known. They are known people. We know that these people were American whites of American blacks of American Indian or Japanese male, Japanese female (for example).

"Ancestry, we know, is tricky because there are no true races, no pure populations. Human beings are always interacting with one another." Myster said anthropologists err on the side of caution. They mark "unknown" if they cannot get samples that they are satisfied are similar enough to each other in terms of ethnicity.

She admits that a skull is not the best body part to use in determining age at the time of death. Pelvic bones are more useful for that determination. However, a skull, like the one from Minnehaha Park can offer strong clues.

"If all of the teeth are erupted, then you know it is an adult individual," stated Myster. There are less reliable techniques "like looking at the sutures that united the different bones of the skull and determine how fused those are and, also, if they are obliterated, so that you cannot see them any longer. As an individual ages, these sutures begin to fuse together and ultimately will be obliterated," said Myster.

That is how she determined that the skull from the park was "middle-aged." The forensic anthropologist's task ends before there is a cause of death. "By statute,that (cause of death) is the responsibility of the Medical Examiner, but what the anthropologist does is describe all of any trauma or any evidence of disease that might have led to this person dying," said Myster.

There was no evidence of any trauma to the skull found in the park. There was some broken bone "But you could tell that that happened after, quite a while after death of the individual. It was not related to the individual's death. In the case of the Minnehaha skull, it could have been also due to whoever had the skull at some point or there could have been numerous people who ultimately had that skull and used it in some way. So, the breakage could have occurred when people were handling it or just from being where it was."

Myster is convinced that the skull had been used for some research or teaching function since there were two holes drilled into the bone. "They were placed in ways that you commonly see when you have a biological supply skeleton that then has been used for teaching purposes."

One of the holes was in the back of the skull, near where the spinal cord enters the skull. "and there was a wire that had been, not in the hole, through the hole, but was right next to the hole. That is where they found it. So, it must have slipped out of there. The other drilled hole was in the tooth socket, the central front teeth...and that probably was there to hold the mandible (lower jaw) to the cranium," said Myster. The skull found in the park did not have a mandible with it.

All of which does not include how the skull came to be in the park. Myster is hoping someone in the public will come forward. They may know of a relative or an old doctor who kept the skull or was part of a collection. Finding the exact identity of the person who once occupied the skeleton fragment is not likely, but more could be learned about its history.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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