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Non-invasive examination of a skull fragment recovered from a World War Two aircraft crash site

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Abstract

The discovery of human remains dating to the time of the Second World War is a common occurrence in Europe and the Pacific regions. This case report demonstrates the analysis of a bone fragment recovered from a Luftwaffe crash site in Austria during the summer of 2007. Eye-witness statements and official reports were used to reconstruct the historical background of the case. A recovered German military identity tag helped to identify the pilot. Aircraft parts, also discovered at the crash site in 2007, aided the identification of the aircraft type and corroborated the eye-witness reports of the final moments before and during the crash. The bone was analyzed chiefly to establish its human or non-human origin and to identify from which anatomic region the fragment could have arisen. It was identified as part of a human adult skull which exhibited peri-mortem fractures and heat damage as well as post-mortem vegetation staining. The historical background information in connection with the morphological analysis led to the presumptive identification of the cranial fragment as belonging to a downed German pilot.

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... This is due to the impact of the body on the ground, which differs from trauma caused by an airplane crash. Few studies are available that report airplane crashes in an archaeological context (Gapert & Rieder, 2013;Palmiotto et al., 2020). Most of these types of studies are reported in forensic literature (Byard & Tsokos, 2006;de Bakker et al., 2018) were quite well preserved and tended to be present in their entirety. ...
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... The study of human remains is an important area of anthropology, especially for the analysis and identification of burned skeletal remains, for example in cases of forensic fires or mass disasters [1][2][3][4][5][6]. However, heat-induced changes cause several alterations to bone tissue, possibly affecting the definition of a biological profile [1,2,[7][8][9]; these modifications are mainly due to the effect of evaporation and degradation of the organic matter during combustion, and include alterations in the color, mechanical properties and chemical features of bone tissue, dependent on the burning temperature and the general conditions of the combustion process, which creates standardized burn patterns [1,2,7,[10][11][12][13][14][15]. ...
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... In this issue of the journal we have described scene examination and the process of assessment of a fragment of skeletal material taken from a WWII fighter plane crash site [1]. It is of interest that at that late stage in the war with significantly reduced Luftwaffe numbers, three German Sturmjäger units, IV.(Sturm)/JG 3, II.(Sturm)/JG 300 and II.(Sturm) ...
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To date, numerous studies have examined the range of cranial thickness variation in modern humans. The purpose of this investigation is to present a new method that would be easier to replicate, and to examine sex and age variation in cranial thickness in a white sample. The method consists of excising four cranial segments from the frontal and parietal regions. The sample consists of 165 specimens collected at autopsy and 15 calvarial specimens. An increase in cranial thickness with age was observed. The results suggest that cranial thickness is not sexually dimorphic outside the onset of hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI).
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During February and March 2000, human remains were recovered from the Holy Loch, Scotland. Police enquiries identified 13 males that had gone missing, presumed drowned in the Holy Loch or the adjoining lochs, over the previous 35 years. Osteological examination of the remains established they were from a male, aged between 15 and 23 and 168-174 cm tall. This information eliminated ten of the known missing persons. DNA profiles, both STR and mitochondrial were generated from the remains and compared to the profiles generated from relatives of the missing men. A positive match between the unidentified individual and one of the maternal relatives identified the remains as belonging to a US serviceman who had gone missing 35 years ago. The successful identification led to the repatriation of the serviceman's remains.
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The study presented here is based on 176 forensic dental reports compiled between 1993 and 2001. The bulk of the research took place in 1997, when major construction at Potsdamer Platz and Lehrter Bahnhof in central Berlin required the excavation of considerable quantities of earth. As building proceeded here, at 'Europe's biggest construction site', it revealed not only a large number of long bones, but also a great many skulls and skull fragments. In five instances, complete skeletons were unearthed. Many of the bones ultimately proved to be of animal origin. The police were not instructed to open a single criminal investigation. Identifying and piecing together the material in this context makes tremendous demands of forensic osteology. Establishing the nature of these finds beyond reasonable doubt, and putting a name and date to them, calls for interdisciplinary co-operation between experts in odontology, anthropology, anatomy, radiology and veterinary medicine, not to mention historians.
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Interpreting patterns of injury in victims of fire-related deaths poses challenges for forensic investigators. Determining manner of death (accident, suicide or homicide) using charred remains is compounded by the thermal distortion and fragmentation of soft and skeletal tissues. Heat degrades thin cranial structures and obscures the characteristic signatures of perimortem ballistic, blunt, and sharp force trauma in bone, making differentiation from thermal trauma difficult. This study documents the survivability and features of traumatic injury through all stages of burning for soft tissue reduction and organic degradation of cranial bone. Forty cadaver heads were burned in environments simulating forensic fires. Progression of thermal degradation was photographically documented throughout the destructive stages for soft tissues and bone to establish expected burn sequence patterns for the head. In addition to testing intact vaults, a percentage were selectively traumatized to introduce the variables of soft tissue disruption, fractures, impact marks, and incisions throughout the cremation process. Skeletal materials were recovered, reconstructed, and correlated with photographs to discern burn patterns and survivability of traumatic features. This study produced two important results: (1) Identification of preexistent trauma is possible in reconstructed burned cranial bone. Signatures of ballistic (internal and external bevel, secondary fractures), blunt force (impact site, radiating fractures), and sharp force (incisions, stabs, sectioning) survive the cremation process. (2) In non-traumatized specimens, the skull does not explode from steam pressure but does fragment as a result of external forces (collapsed debris, extinguishment methods) and handling. The features of both results are sequentially described throughout the progression of thermal destruction.
Article
Human identification from burned remains is a common requirement of forensic anthropology, yet the techniques used are devised for use on unmodified bone dimensions. Bone experiences extensive and significant heat-induced alteration which decreases the accuracy and precision of identification methods. An holistic approach to the study of burned bone is adopted and demonstrates the interconnectivity and hierarchy of these changes. It is demonstrated that these changes affect all forms of anthropological technique.
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The purpose of this study was to define the variability in skull thickness from location to location and from individual to individual in a large number of human skulls. Skull thickness was measured in multiple areas of the calvaria in 281 dry skulls from the Hamman-Todd osteological collection (Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, Ohio). A total of 40 points were determined over the frontal, occipital, and parietal bones, with a higher number of points concentrated on the latter. Repeated measures analysis of variance models were used to assess the effects of covariates (individual variables) on skull thickness and location. A statistically significant pattern of increased thickness toward the posterior parietal bones was seen in all subgroups. The mean thickness of the skull across all locations was 6.32 mm (SEM, 0.07 mm) and ranged from 5.3 mm (SEM, 0.09 mm) to 7.5 mm (SEM, 0.09 mm). Age was not found to be a significant predictor of mean skull thickness. Differences between male and female skulls were greater toward the rear of the parietal bones. The thickest area of the skull is the parasagittal posterior parietal area in male skulls and the posterior parietal area midway between the sagittal and superior temporal line in female skulls. An accurate map of the skull thickness representing the normative data of the studied population was developed. It is hoped that this topographic map will assist the surgeons in choosing the safest area of cranial bone graft harvest, thus increasing the safety of the procedure.
Münchener Wissenschaftstage 16.–20 Fäden des Lebens: 50 Jahre DNA—Doppelhelix. http://www.rechtsmedizin.med.uni-muench en.de/service/downloads/2003_07_16_wissent_3.pdf
  • Rolf K B Anslinger
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