My job with this case is to place each skeleton in anatomical position, and start the process of reviewing the bones for determination of the individual’s age and signs of trauma. My colleague is responsible for the final determination of these, but throughout the course of the project I’ve taken on increasing responsibility. I am getting much more accurate at determining the age of death (using the pubic symphysis, rib ends and other skeletal elements), and at distinguishing between perimortem trauma (at or around the time of death) and postmortem trauma (any factor that affects the body after death). I find this to be especially difficult when it comes to ribs, which are brittle and often fracture as the body decomposes (postmortem trauma). In this case, almost all of the individuals exhibit perimortem blunt force fractures, including many broken ribs, from the fall into the well.
I have been surprisingly unaffected by the gritty nature of the work. I expected the experience to be more emotionally challenging than it has been to date, which I think this has to do mostly with two things: 1) arriving prepared. From past studies and experiences in
Moreover, it gets easier with time. One of the first cases that my colleague and I reviewed was that of a young man, about my age, whose skeleton exhibited multiple signs of trauma. We discovered that he was struck at least three times on the neck and back with a sharp-edged weapon – likely a machete – and that the attacker had to have come at him from the right side of his body. Somewhat strangely, he did not exhibit visible defense wounds on his hands or wrists, a possible indication that his hands were tied at the time of the attack.
There was a moment of silence after we decided this, in which time I thought about the unfortunate final moments of this young war victim. Then my colleague looked up from the sliced vertebra in his hand and said “que bonito” (“how pretty”). I was taken aback by this comment, which came from a purely scientific standpoint. But I quickly snapped back into forensic mode – “sí, que bonito,” I said. And it’s true, the human skeleton is beautiful, and being able to discern slight marks in it that determine the difference between life and death is indeed astonishing.
Some 40 individuals later, I found myself saying the same thing when we were able to determine the sequence of two gun shot wounds and a blunt-force injury to someone’s skull.