A preliminary investigation into the estimation of time since death from human skeletal remains by radioisotope and trace element analysis

Sheridan Howard

    Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

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    One of the first concerns for forensic anthropologists in dealing with skeletal remains in the Australian context is the determination of whether the remains are of anthropological, historical or archaeological interest. If fewer than 75 years have elapsed since death, remains are classified as anthropological and of forensic interest. However, an accurate and reliable method for estimating time since death (TSD) from human skeletal remains has thus far eluded forensic anthropologists. This study investigates the application in an Australian context of a novel approach proposed by Swift (2001) to dating skeletal remains from their contained levels of radioisotopes 210Po, 238U and 226Ra and trace elements. Radionuclide activity concentrations were determined using alpha and gamma spectrometry. Trace element concentrations were measured on three separate occasions using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Discriminant analysis of the combination of activity concentration values for 210Po, 238U and 226Ra indicated the possibility of separation of bones derived from individuals who had died in the three eras of interest. Additionally, variations in the concentration levels of specific trace elements and certain inter-element relationships between elements also showed significant correlations with TSD. The study could not be exhaustive as access to human skeletal material was limited and additionally, the archaeological material had a different origin and post-death history to material from the more recent past. However, trend lines for inter-relationships between specific metals and for radionuclides indicated that all material fitted the same generally projected trends and as such, inferences with respect to variations of trace elements and radionuclides could be made with confidence. Bone radionuclide activity and calcium concentrations were all significantly higher in bones from the archaeological era than those from more recent eras, while trace lead concentrations contained in samples from the more recent historical era were significantly higher than those from other eras. Barium, lanthanum, rubidium, strontium, cerium and neodymium concentrations were all significantly correlated with one another and with radionuclide activity concentrations. Differences were found between the patterns of radionuclide activity and trace element concentrations between the skull and femur. The results of this study lend support to suggestions that multivariate analysis of trace element concentrations and radionuclide activity levels could aid in the estimation of time since death from skeletal remains in Australia. Although this study made use of only a limited amount of material, results clearly indicated the need to take into account variations arising from lifetime activities, diagenesis and bone type in applying the techniques to estimations of time since death. It highlights the need for a large-scale study using bone of known ages that systematically examines these influences on the estimation of time since death.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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