Using tooth histology to help identify a murder victim in a 37-year-old cold case
February 26, 2013
My spouse, Vicki, the other Dr. Wedel, is a physical and forensic anthropologist. And she’s one of a very small number of scientists who have (a) learned something new about the human body, and (b) used it to help identify dead people. And since that process involves the sciences of hard-tissue histology and skeletochronology–not to mention lots of dead folks–I reckon it might be of interest here. Hence this post.
This started about a decade ago, when Vicki was working on her PhD under Alison Galloway at UC Santa Cruz. Vicki worked with Alison on a ton of forensic cases, including some you probably heard of–they analyzed the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn baby, Connor, for Scott Peterson’s murder trial. I had the unusual privilege of assisting a couple of times, on other cases, once to take some pictures in the lab while Vicki fished the skeleton out of the bag of skin that was all that was left of the body, and once to crawl around on my hands and knees picking human finger bones out of a muddy slough near Santa Cruz. All in all, I’m happy that my usual victims have been dead a lot longer.
Incidentally, the only show with forensic content that Vicki will watch voluntarily is Dexter. She cannot stand CSI, NCIS, or the other “behind the scenes” forensic investigation shows. We’ve tried watching them, but the inaccuracies drive her crazy (paleo people: imagine getting the Clockwork Orange therapy and being forced to watch Clash of the Dinosaurs). Real cases are solved by teams of specialists, not two omnicompetent protagonists; it takes weeks or months, not half an hour; and if the forensics people carry guns, it’s because they know waaaay too much about how some very bad, very organized people dispose of bodies (the short answer is, not thoroughly enough*).
* Once a guy who was threatening to testify against a certain criminal organization was shot in the head, his body burned, and his burnt remains scattered along the side of the road. Vicki and Alison picked the bone shards out of the roadside gravel, identified some of them as bits of skull, and found bevelling diagnostic of ballistics trauma on some of those. The way the bone had shattered showed that the gunshot had been inflicted perimortem–around the time of death–and before the body was burned. Bottom line, whatever plan you have to get rid of the body, it is probably not going to be enough to keep someone like Vicki from figuring out how you did it. That much, the TV shows do get right.
Not only is hard to really, truly get rid of a human body, it’s also hard to tell exactly when a person died, especially if all you have is a body in the woods. Insects are good–there’s a whole field of forensic entomology, whose practitioners age cadavers based on what insects are present and what stages of their life cycles they’re in. But what if all that is left is a pile of bones in the woods (which happens more often that you might think, and sometimes for completely innocuous reasons)? I’m preaching to the choir here, but bones can survive for a long time, so general wear-and-tear doesn’t tell you much. Rapetosaurus looks like it died last year.
There’s another side to this, which is figuring out how old someone was at the time of death based on their skeleton. Tooth eruption is good, and fusion of the epiphyseal growth plates, but both of those processes are basically done by the time people are in their mid-20s (teeth) to mid-30s (epiphyseal fusion). After that, there are methods based on the morphology of the auricular surface of the ilium and the public symphyses, but these only narrow things down to intervals of 5 to 15 years, and that’s a lot of missing persons reports to sift through. And none of the regular skeletal methods work past the age of 55 or 60. After that, no matter how healthy you are, the primary skeletal changes are attritional (i.e., you’re wearing out), and that process varies so much among individuals and populations that there are basically no predictive guidelines.
All of this was on Vicki’s mind when she was a grad student, so she was alert to anything that might help forensic anthropologists narrow down the possibilities for identifying dead folks. She was teaching in an osteology course and one of her students, Josh Peabody, brought up dental cementum increment analysis (DCIA), which is used in zooarcheology to determine the age and season at death of animal remains found at archaeological sites. Josh wanted to know if the method worked on humans.
At the time–2004–DCIA was being tested for age at death in some historical human populations from archaeological sites, but no-one had tried using it for season at death. So Vicki and Josh set out to see if it would work.
Our teeth, like those of other mammals, are held in their sockets by periodontal ligaments. The periodontal ligament of each tooth attaches via Sharpey’s fibers to the dental cementum on the tooth root(s). Cementum is laid down in annual bands, so you can count the number of bands on a tooth, add the normal age at which that tooth erupts, and get a pretty tight estimate of when the animal died. So much for age at death, which was already being done on humans in a limited way in the early 2000s, albeit in archaeological rather than forensic contexts.
But wait, there’s more. Actually two bands of cementum are laid down every year–a dark band in the winter (roughly October to March) and a light band in the summer (roughly April to September). ‘Dark’ and ‘light’ describe the appearance of the bands under polarized light microscopy. In the summer months, the collagen fibrils that make up the cementum are aligned parallel to the tooth root, so more light comes through. In the winter, the collagen is aligned perpendicular to the root, so less light is transmitted, and the winter bands appear darker by comparison. So not only does the number of pairs of light-and-dark bands tell you the number of years since the tooth erupted, the color of the outermost band tells you in which six-month period the individual died, and the thickness of the outermost band might help you narrow that down even further.
At least, that’s how it works in other mammals. Would it hold up in humans? After all, we’re pretty good at adjusting our environments to suit us, rather than vice versa. If the winter-summer banding pattern was present in humans, it would be a huge boon to forensic science. Even people in their 40s and beyond with no very reliable skeletal indicators of age could be aged to within a year or two, and their season at death narrowed down to a 2-3 month window.
To find out, Vicki and Josh had a dentist in Santa Cruz collect 112 teeth pulled from patients over the course of a year (with full IRB approval and informed consent from the dental patients). For their purposes, a tooth pulled from a live person is just as good as one from a cadaver or skeleton–extraction kills the tooth as surely as death of the body. Better, even, in that it was easier to quickly get lots of teeth with very precise extraction data.
Vicki and Josh cut a few teeth together and they found dark and light bands right away. They presented those preliminary results at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in 2005. After that, Josh got busy with his own research, but Vicki pressed on (while finishing a dissertation on different project, and being a first-time mom).
If this was a movie, this is the part where there would be a montage of inspirational music to get us quickly past a lot of hard, boring work. Each of the 112 teeth had to be embedded in plastic, a section through the root cut out with a saw, that section mounted on a slide and ground down until it was translucent (this process will be familiar to bone histologists of all stripes, paleo or neo). Then Vicki had to go all the way around the perimeter of the each root to find the place where the cementum bands showed the most clearly, and count them. This part is trickier than it sounds, unless you’ve done some histo and know just how butt-ugly some sections can be under the scope.
The results? In the words of the Bloodhound Gang, which Vicki quotes in her DCIA talks, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals”. Here’s the payoff graph:
The one out-of-place measurement was probably caused by the dark band not being thick enough to register clearly on the image.
Now that she knew that DCIA could be used to determine season at death in humans, Vicki started applying it in her forensic cases, of which there have been many. The vast majority of the work of forensic anthropologists is invisible to the public: after analyzing a set of remains, a forensic anthropologist writes a case report for whatever law enforcement office (or, much less frequently, law firm or other entity) brought them in, and that’s that. The case reports are almost always confidential, but they have to be written to exacting standards since they may be used as evidence in court. So forensic anthropologists spend a lot of time toiling over papers that hardly anyone gets to read.
However, sometimes a case is written up for journal publication–if it’s sufficiently novel or unusual, and if permission can be secured from all of the relevant parties. In 2008, Vicki was approached by the Merced County sheriff’s office to help try to identify the remains of a young woman who had been murdered in 1971. That’s the 37-year-old cold case mentioned in the title of this post, and rather than tell you about it, I’ll point you to Vicki’s case report (Wedel et al. 2013), published last month in the Journal of Forensic Identification and freely available here.
I wasn’t sure whether to post about this or not–as cool as they are, murder cases are not our normal stock in trade on this blog. What decided me was talking with Andy Farke. He read Vicki’s paper as soon as it came out, and he said that he really enjoyed getting to see how forensic anthropologists work in the real world. I sometimes take for granted that, since I am married to a forensic anthropologist, I get to see how this works all the time. But that’s a pretty rare experience–if paleontology is a small field, forensic anthropology is positively tiny. So if you want to see an example of the real science that CSI and the like are based on, here’s your window.
What’s next? Vicki has several validation studies on DCIA in progress, for which she and her collaborators have collected a much larger sample size–over 1000 teeth–to try to answer questions like: what tooth is best to use for DCIA? Should the histological sections be made longitudinally or transversely through the tooth root? Does cementum banding vary with latitude? And since banding patterns are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, following the flip-flopped season, what happens at the equator? Watch this space, and keep an eye out for Vicki’s future publications–including a book due out next year–at her website, Bodies, Bugs, and Bones.
- Wedel, V.L. 2007b. Determination of season at death using dental cementum increment analysis. Journal of Forensic Sciences 52(6): 1334-1337.
- Wedel, V.L., G. Found, and G.L. Nusse. 2013. A 37 year-old cold case identification using novel and collaborative methods. Journal of Forensic Identification 63(1): 5-21.