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The Archaeologist in The Cocoon

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“The Archaeologist in the Cocoon”, episode of the show Bones, begins with the discovery of a body wrapped inside of a cocoon. This cocoon is hanging on a tree branch beside a man who was caught in the tree while skydiving. Dr. Brennan, Forensic Anthropologist for the FBI, states that the victim is human. She does this by taking note of the prominent brow ridge as well as the slanted frontal bone found in the face of the body discovered in the cocoon. The remains were discovered after being left inside of the cocoon for several days.

The crime scene is set up to make it look like an accident with the inclusion of a crashed car. The car was found to be clean. There was no visible evidence of blood being spilled on the interior of the vehicle that could be found at first glance. After cutting open the car seats and examining the interior it is discovered that they are completely soaked in blood. The vehicle is registered to Mr. James Sutton, an adventurer as well as an archaeologist. By matching up medical records of x-rays of the victim’s face provided by his physician, the remains are ultimately identified as him.

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After speaking with the victim’s wife and her brother, it is discovered that the victim rented a storage space and had brought an important discovery back to the states. Ancient bones were found at the storage unit. Once the bones made their way back to the lab, it is found that the bones are of a Neanderthal male, homo sapiens female, and a half homo sapiens half Neanderthal female child. Showing that they cohabited in the cave they were found in, they were the first interspecies couple of their kind. It is then found that Sutton had been selling artifacts to a Creationist who owned a museum but never actually placed the artifacts there. Finding out that the victim was flogged because his wife’s family was unhappy with their marriage causes the victim’s brother-in-law to become the prime suspect. However, he was not the killer. The killer turned out to be the victim’s publisher, who killed him because he published an article in a scientific journal and didn’t mention her name. She attacked him with a bookend, slicing through his armpit and causing him to bleed to death. The episode ends by the re-telling of the story of the last moments of the ancient family whose bones were found by Sutton. The father died trying to protect his family, the mother died, and the daughter was left to starve to death. They all died curled up together and that is how Sutton discovered them in the cave.

Visual skeletal analysis

Dr. Brennan immediately determines that the remains are not only human but are the remains of an adult Caucasian male by pointing out its prominent brow ridge and the slanted frontal bone on the skull. As a professional Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Brennan has a trained eye to look for certain traits in human bones, such as in the face or pelvis for the determination of biological sex and makes assumptions upon those traits. In this episode, as in most episodes, Dr. Brennan simply visually examines the bones to determine their biological profile. Specifically looking at the human skull for this paper, it is noted that determining biological sex and determining ancestry through visual assessment of the skull are two separate morphologically based techniques but, due to their brief cross interaction in the show and the relationship skeletal remains have with spatial and temporal determination bias; this paper will explore each method in, at least, some detail.

Biological Sex Assessment Via Skull (Sexing Skulls)

The thought of sexing skulls by visual analysis was first recorded by Broca in 1875 and Acsádi and Nemeskéri followed in 1970 by creating a numerical system of rating skulls with European ancestry, which the authors expand on in future published works to include different populations. It is Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) who standardized the skull visualization assessments. Walker (2008) expanded on these papers and data by digitizing their illustrations to diagrams and allowing non-forensic or osteology trained volunteers to use this diagram to decide if the remains were male or female. The diagram used contains a scoring system next to skulls labeling their mental eminence, orbital margin, glabellar area, nuchal area and mastoid process. All that is required to make this method work is the eye of a professional with a background in skeletal anatomy and human osteology. “Physical anthropologists traditionally base their skeletal sex assessments principally on subjective visual assessments of sexually dimorphic features of the skull and pelvis (Walker, 2008).” Visually assessing a skull to determine its biological profile requires nothing more than your own eyes and a mostly intact human skull to assume the remains’ sex and since it lacks initial quantitative data or anthropometric tools it is a morphological method rather than a metric-based method.

While Acsádi’s and Nemeskéri’s work in 1970 was originally based on a small European ancestry/population sample, Walker adds to this by including “304 skulls of known age and sex from people of European American, African American, and English ancestry as well as on an ancient Native American sample of 156 individuals (2008).” The small population or ancestral based study sample comes from a church’s skeletal selection, Smithsonian institution, and a museum of natural history. Walker uses a wide geographical range of samples to remove any geographical bias from the method and strengthen its accuracy (2008). Different time periods in history and geographical region makes for different patterns of sexual dimorphism to vary significantly. Traits that are sexually dimorphic in one population may be much less so in another and this can change quickly over a span of a few decades (Walker, 2008). Over time, the bias can affect sample population sizes or steer criminal investigations in the wrong direction. Despite the informal process of visually looking at the skull with the naked eye, the volunteers in Walker’s study got high scores using the diagram that was originally created by Buikstra and Ubelaker and updated by Walker. The scores in modern human samples were close in comparison to using discriminant function analysis (DFA).

Ancestry Assessment Via Skull

The measuring of human skull can be taken back to the early days of anthropometrics. But Dr. William W. Howell created the data set of craniums that is still used today. Though the actual technique of ancestry assessment via the skull can be metric or nonmetric Howell’s version was metric. Howells (1996) took sample measurements of a total of two thousand five hundred and twenty-four humans crania from twenty-eight different populations for males and twenty-six for females. Howells took these samples between the years of 1965 and 1980. Howells (1996) study sample was two thousand five hundred and four specimens. Of those specimens, one thousand three hundred and forty-eight of them were known or diagnosed as being male and one thousand one hundred and fifty-six were known or diagnosed as being female. All of these specimens with a known sex were taken from dissecting room collections. This collection of measurements also includes five hundred twenty-four “test” specimens. These specimens include extra of rejects from the samples, prehistoric, and casts of prehistoric skulls. To do this Howell used both a background and training in physical anthropology and used measurements taken from sites in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Howell took these measurements from complete skulls.

Though I’m not completely sure of the accuracy of this but William W. Howells Craniometric Data Set is still used by forensic and physical anthropologists today. If it was not at least partly accurate it would not still be used today.

Given that Dr. Brennan was not allowed to cut significantly deep into the cocoon initially allowing only visibility of the front of the skull which protruded outside of the cocoon which was tied into a very high tree I would assume that assessing the initial biological profile by examining the skull was her best course of action. Only because the skull was the only visible part of the remains and the body was initially unable to be moved. After the body is removed from the tree the skull is x- rayed and the body is formally identified confirming her original suspicions. These were appropriate choices, however, later in the episode, Dr. Brennan finds a storage room full of unidentified bones that belonged to the victim. She then proceeded to lick the bones to discover their porosity and geological origin. This was not an appropriate choice, not in any work pertaining situation should you lick bones. That being said, people do lick bones to tell if it is bone or not, I have seen it done.

For added entertainment the body was cocooned, this is an extremely unusual occurrence (if not totally impossible) and had no forensic need to be cocooned so high into a tree. That was to provide an added shock value – the life and career of a forensic anthropologist is probably not so exciting. At least in the sense that it is not every day that you are called in because a body was found cocooned in a tree.

Alternative Methods

I’m not sure that there would have been a better method with stating the body in the cocoon was human, at least not at the time Dr. Brenan first stated that it was. At that moment only the skull was exposed so that is the only way she could have decided that. Immediately stating that the body was an adult Caucasian male is another story. I do not feel that you can decide that a body is of a certain race or sex that quickly. I did however find some quotes that seem to prove me wrong. However, maybe the quotes mean that it can be done with more evidence given. “A skilled eye and practiced judgment are the most valuable tools for a forensic anthropologist. Increasing experience will allow him to make sense out of small bits of evidence”. (Hinkes 1993:52) “Anthroposcopy appears to be as accurate as anthropometry when in experienced hands and when numerous traits are used”. (Rhine 1990:19) “Sometimes it is only the anthropologist’s experience that tells him there is an undefinable “something” about the skeleton that suggests one race over another”. (Stewart 1979:231)

Once the body has been exposed the pelvis can be used to determine the sex. The pelvis is the best indicator when trying to determine the sex of a body or skeletal remains. The male pelvis has a narrower, heart shaped pelvic inlet, while the female has an open, circular pelvic inlet. The male sciatic notch is also narrower than the its female counter part. The angle where the two pubic bone meet in front are also narrower on the male pelvis. A female pelvis also has more outwardly flare hip bones. It should also be noted that the sex related skeletal figures noted above are not obvious, so it would be easy to determine if the body or skeletal remains is that of a child.

This method would be better than trying to determine the sex of a body or skeletal remains via the skull, but multiple methods should be used when it is possible. Determining the sex by skull measurements is also not nearly as accurate as looking at the features of the pelvis. The point is that you should always double check the biological profile against other methods. One stand-alone method is not enough to assess the entire or even most of the biological profile of remains. There is no single test to accurately determine the sex of skeletal remains due to time and geographical region or ancestral variations. Walker comments that even though “male skulls are generally larger and have heavier muscle attachments than those of females, substantial population differences exist (Walker, 2008).”

The episode of bones that was used as an example in this paper was found to support the following statements. The body in question was found wrapped inside of a cocoon and had been left there for several days. A Forensic anthropologist, Dr. Brennan, who was working for the FBI believed the body to be of human origin. She used information found in the subject’s cranium to support this. The crime scene is believed to have been constructed with the use of a crashed car to appear as an accident. At first glance the vehicle appeared to have been clean. Upon closer inspection it was revealed that the vehicle’s interior was soaked in blood. Evidence supports that the vehicle was registered to Mr. James Sutton. The victim’s wife and brother confirmed that she was renting a storage unit where he was storing ancient remains of a recent discovery of his. The remains were sent to a lab where they were found to be both Neanderthal and homo sapiens found alongside their interspecies child. The child was believed to be the first body to be confirmed as an interspecies offspring between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. Sutton had also been selling some of his samples to a creationist. The buyer never put them on display. The victim was flogged because his wife’s family was not content with her marriage, which supported the idea that the victim’s brother in law was the primary suspect in their murder.

However, he was not ultimately found to be the killer. The killer was revealed to be the victim’s publisher who was motivated to kill because the victim had not mentioned them in a published article despite their involvement. He was killed from being stuck with a bookend, causing the victim to bleed out. The family was found curled together after the parents had passed and the child starved to death The visual skeletal analysis revealed that the remains were human, specifically an adult Caucasian male. This was supported by the prominent brow ridge and the slanted frontal bone on the skull. The process of sexing skulls was first recorded by Broca in 1875 followed by Acsádi and Nemeskéri in 1970. It entailed creating a numerical system used to evaluate skull. Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) standardized skull visualization passements allowing for more comparative work to be done. This work was expanded up on by Walker (2008), whose advancements allowed for information to be digitized and non-professionals to use this technology in order determine the sexes of found skeletons. Walker expanded to the work of Acsádi and Nemeskéri by providing information on the skulls by over four hundred and fifty.

I have never really liked the show Bones, but I guess I can understand why the writers would add in a cocoon just for the shock value. It had no real value to the case other than to get people to watch the show. Dr. Brenan also licked random bones she found. I don’t feel like you should do that, but I have seen someone lick bone before.

Dr. Brenan literally looks at the body in the cocoon with the body still fully covered and the still partially covered skull and immediately states that it is an adult Caucasian male. She barely had time to even look at it. She should have at least waited till the body was down and she could look at it better. A better method of finding the sex of a body or skeletal remains would be to look at the pelvis, though you should never use just one method if possible.

In conclusion, this show is extremely exaggerated. Some of the methods can be performed but not in the way that the show portrays. It is only for shock value.


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