Forensic scientists need skeletons to train – but they’re down to bare bones

Universities struggling to find remains to study as colonial corpses are sent home

Considering scientists estimate that the number of people who have lived – and died – now comfortably exceeds 100 billion individuals, it would seem fair to assume that there was no shortage of one of the most fundamental human resources: bones.

However, social taboos, strict laws governing human tissue use and legislation demanding the repatriation of historic remains mean that forensic science students are becoming increasingly dependent on technology, rather than the real thing, to learn their way around the human skeleton.

Recent years have seen a massive increase in the demand for courses in forensic science, fuelled by the popularity of television programmes such as CSI. But many universities are struggling to provide the next generation of crime scene investigators with actual bones on which to practise.

Now a British company, Anthronomics, hopes to solve the problem by working with computer game developers to create new software which scans existing skeletal collections and makes 3D digital images of them available on tablet devices such as the iPad.

The technology is about to be trialled at sites in the UK and the US, and could be used to train students across the world to examine bone trauma in the remains of crime victims, as well as identify casualties of genocide and human rights abuses.

Dr Tim Thompson, a reader in biological and forensic anthropology at Teesside University and founder of Anthronomics, said teaching skeletal anatomy had become incredibly difficult in recent years.

“People are quite happy for you to use archaeological remains but when it comes to the present time they are less willing,” he said. “In the UK you can donate your body to medicine but there are very strict rules which mean that it must be used for medical education and must be in anatomy or a clinical setting,” he said.

Dr Piers Mitchell, President of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, said the majority of victims of violence – such as blast, burn or other trauma injuries – whose remains would be useful in the study of forensic science, have their bodies buried or cremated before they can be donated. 

“Most of the places that study forensic science are the newer universities which do not have well-established archaeological collections and which may not be connected to a medical school,” he said.

The shortage is international. Many students from the US are now choosing to move to the UK to study since the passing of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires universities to hand over contested bone material to tribes’ representatives.

In Britain, skeletons brought to the country during colonial times have also been returned after claims from communities in New Zealand and Australia. Many students rely on remains dating back to Anglo-Saxon times while others practise on plastic casts which are expensive and lack the subtleties of the real thing.

3D images are still a poor substitute for the genuine article, as Dr Thompson conceded, but with supplies running short, they could be a vitally useful alternative – and do have the merit of being far cheaper to produce than the plastic casts. For many would-be crime scene investigators, Dr Thompson said: “They are the closest you can get to the real thing.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world