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15.4: Trauma Analysis

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    • Alex Perrone, Ashley Kendell, & Colleen Milligan

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    Types of Trauma

    Within the field of anthropology, trauma is defined as an injury to living tissue caused by an extrinsic force or mechanism (Lovell 1997:139). Forensic anthropologists can assist a forensic pathologist by providing an interpretation of the course of events that led to skeletal trauma. Typically, traumatic injury to bone is classified into one of four categories, defined by the trauma mechanism. A trauma mechanism refers to the force that produced the skeletal modification and can be classified as (1) sharp force, (2) blunt force, (3) projectile, or (4) thermal (burning). Each type of trauma, and the characteristic pattern(s) associated with that particular categorization, will be discussed below.

    First, let’s consider sharp-force trauma, which is caused by a tool that is edged, pointed, or beveled—for example, a knife, saw, or machete (SWGANTH 2011). The patterns of injury resulting from sharp-force trauma include linear incisions created by a sharp, straight edge; punctures; and chop marks (Figure 15.18; SWGANTH 2011). When observed under a microscope, an anthropologist can often determine what kind of tool created the bone trauma. For example, a power saw cut will be discernible from a manual saw cut.

    Anterior image of a skull with multiple traumatic injuries to forehead.
    Figure 15.18: Example of sharp-force trauma (sword wound) to the frontal bone. The skull appears sliced with thin lines in two places across the top of the skull. Credit: Female skull injured by a medieval sword by Provinciaal depot voor archeologie Noord-Holland is under a CC BY 4.0 License. The original image is a 3D model that can be manipulated on the openverse website.

    Second, blunt-force trauma is defined as “a relatively low-velocity impact over a relatively large surface area” (Galloway 1999, 5). Blunt-force injuries can result from impacts from clubs, sticks, fists, and so forth. Blunt-force impacts typically leave an injury at the point of impact but can also lead to bending and deformation in other regions of the bone. Depressions, fractures, and deformation at and around the site of impact are all characteristics of blunt-force trauma (Figure 15.19). As with sharp-force trauma, an anthropologist attempts to interpret blunt-force injuries, providing information pertaining to the type of tool used, the direction of impact, the sequence of impacts, if more than one, and the amount of force applied.

    Cranium with two blunt force impacts from a hammer.
    Figure 15.19: Example of multiple blunt force impacts to the left parietal and frontal bones. There is one hole in the skull with fractured bone around the edges. There are also multiple spots across the back of the skull with depressions of various sizes. Credit: Skull hammer trauma by the National Institutes of Health, Health & Human Services, is in the public domain. [Exhibit: Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 19th Century Collection, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C.]

    Third, projectile trauma refers to high-velocity trauma, typically affecting a small surface area (Galloway 1999, 6). Projectile trauma results from fast-moving objects such as bullets or shrapnel. It is typically characterized by penetrating defects or embedded materials (Figure 15.20). When interpreting injuries resulting from projectile trauma, an anthropologist can often offer information pertaining to the type of weapon used (e.g., rifle vs. handgun), relative size of the bullet (but not the caliber of the bullet), the direction the projectile was traveling, and the sequence of injuries if there are multiple present.

    Anterior and posterior views of a skull with a gunshot wound.
    Figure 15.20: Example of projectile trauma with an entrance wound to the frontal bone and exit wound visible on the occipital. A small circular hole is visible in the front of the skull with cracks radiating out from the point of impact. There is a larger hole visible in the back of the skull that is irregular yet circular in shape. Credit: Trauma: Gunshot Wounds by Smithsonian [exhibit: Written in Bone, How Bone Biographies Get Written] is used for educational and non-commercial purposes as outlined by the Smithsonian.

    Finally, thermal trauma is a bone alteration that results from bone exposure to extreme heat. Thermal trauma can result in cases of house or car fires, intentional disposal of a body in cases of homicidal violence, plane crashes, and so on. Thermal trauma is most often characterized by color changes to bone, ranging from yellow to black (charred) or white (calcined). Other bone alterations characteristic of thermal trauma include delamination (flaking or layering due to bone failure), shrinkage, fractures, and heat-specific burn patterning. When interpreting injuries resulting from thermal damage, an anthropologist can differentiate between thermal fractures and fractures that occurred before heat exposure, thereby contributing to the interpretation of burn patterning (e.g., was the individual bound or in a flexed position prior to the fire?).

    While there are characteristic patterns associated with the four categories of bone trauma, it is also important to note that these bone alterations do not always occur independently of different trauma types. An individual’s skeleton may present with multiple different types of trauma, such as a projectile wound and thermal trauma. Therefore, it is important that the anthropologist recognize the different types of trauma and interpret them appropriately.

    Timing of Injury

    Another important component of any anthropological trauma analysis is the determination of the timing of injury (e.g., when did the injury occur). Timing of injury is traditionally split into one of three categories: antemortem (before death), perimortem (at or around the time of death), and postmortem (after death). This classification system differs slightly from the classification system used by the pathologist because it specifically references the qualities of bone tissue and bone response to external forces. Therefore, the perimortem interval (at or around the time of death) means that the bone is still fresh and has what is referred to as a green bone response, which can extend past death by several weeks or even months. For example, in cold or freezing temperatures a body can be preserved for extended periods of time, increasing the perimortem interval, while in desert climates decomposition is accelerated, thereby significantly decreasing the postmortem interval (Galloway 1999, 12). Antemortem injuries (occurring well before death and not related to the death incident) are typically characterized by some level of healing, in the form of a fracture callus or unification of fracture margins. Finally, postmortem injuries (occurring after death, while bone is no longer fresh) are characterized by jagged fracture margins, resulting from a loss of moisture content during the decomposition process (Galloway 1999, 16). In general, all bone traumas should be classified according to the timing of injury, if possible. This information will help the medical examiner or pathologist better understand the circumstances surrounding the decedent’s death, as well as events occurring during life and after the final disposition of the body.

    The Role of the Forensic Anthropologist in Trauma Analysis

    Within the medicolegal system, forensic anthropologists are often called upon by the medical examiner, forensic pathologist, or coroner to assist with an interpretation of trauma. The forensic anthropologist’s main focus in any trauma analysis is the underlying skeletal system—as well as, sometimes, cartilage. Analysis and interpretation of soft tissue injuries fall within the purview of the medical examiner or pathologist. It is also important to note that the main role of the forensic anthropologist is to provide information pertaining to skeletal injury to assist the medical examiner/pathologist in their final interpretation of injury. Forensic anthropologists do not hypothesize as to the cause of death of an individual. Instead, a forensic anthropologist’s report should include a description of the injury (e.g., trauma mechanism, number of injuries, location, timing of injury); documentation of the injury, which may be utilized in court testimony (e.g., photographs, radiographs, measurements); and, if applicable, a statement as to the condition of the body and state of decomposition, which may be useful for understanding the depositional context (e.g., how long has the body been exposed to the elements; was it moved or in its original location; are any of the alterations to bone due to environmental or faunal exposure instead of intentional human modification).

    This page titled 15.4: Trauma Analysis is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alex Perrone, Ashley Kendell, Colleen Milligan, & Colleen Milligan (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.