Determining Age in Human Remains, Call for Standards

The age at death of a skeleton is one of the most important demographic characteristics to be discerned when doing an analysis. In forensics cases, age is a key factor in the identification of the individual. Examining age at death in past population aids in understanding the demography and life course. Physical age of individuals can be compared against their health, artifacts and grave location in order to better understand cultural age and lifestyle. Comparing the trends for age at death across regions and time helps us understand how health and demography has changed over time. These broad scale comparisons are pivotal in understanding long term change in history. However, these comparisons often require information from disparate populations done by a variety of researchers.

Gobero Triple Burial, Adult Female and Two Children, From U Chicago

Age may be a fairly straightforward biological fact in living populations, but determining it in the dead can be difficult. In order to do this, various markers and traits are used. The methods are determining age are diverse, and there are different beliefs on which provide the most accurate results. Often archaeologists use the methods that they learned from their professor or the one most common for their region. However, this makes the amalgamation of information from different sources very difficult. In my own experience, I was taught widely different methods for determining age, especially on which methods to put the most faith into. While studying in the United States, we followed Buikstra and Ubelaker’s (1994) standards, relying solely on their methods that argued for fusion of bone being the most important indicator. In Great Britain, however, I was taught to rely more heavily on dentition for accurate age of death, and followed the standards of Brickley and McKinley (2004).

To make matters more complicated, often these standards vary on even the simple age categories. For example, Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) suggest these categories and ages: Adolescent (12–20 years), Young Adult (20–35 years), Middle Adult (35–50 years) and Old Adults (50+ years). Whereas Rocsandic and Armstrong (2011) argue for basing these categories on specific fusion and degenerative traits: Adolescence (eruption of permanent canines), Young Adult (fusion of long bones), Middle Adult (fusion of medial clavicle) and Old Adults (beginning of degeneration). The latter age categories are meant to correspond to the changes in the population’s specific life cycle rather than more general arbitrary categories.

Aged 31 weeks, 32 weeks, and 40 weeks (full term) Original image from Bone Clones

Currently in bioarchaeology there are no international standards for the recovery, analysis or interpretation of human remains. Rather individual institutions, societies and researchers have put together guides of what they believe to be the most accurate methods. In a recent study by Falys and Lewis (2011), these diverse methods are reviewed in order to determine whether comparison between methods is possible or if standards are necessary. They examined all articles using age determination from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology and Journal of Archaeological Science from 2003 to 2009. They found that the majority of the 200 articles didn’t list where their standards were from, and the reminder primarily followed Buikstra & Ubelaker (1994), Ubelaker (1999) and Bass (1995), with a large number of European archaeologists using Ferembach et al. (1980). Very few articles specified what was specifically meant when using terms like ‘adult’, and ranged widely on what they were thought to mean when actually defined. In over a third of the articles, no methods for how age was determined were given although the majority relied on macroscopic visual observations. The major problem found during this study was the age categories which ranged from 3 to 6 divisions, and varied widely in the range of ages within each division. This makes comparison of categories like ‘old adult’ versus ‘mature adult’ very difficult, especially when the age ranges weren’t explicitly labeled.

In order to make comparison and compilation of age profiles more accurate, Falys and Lewis (2011) propose standardization of determination of age. The problem is that these categories of adult versus adolescent are culturally loaded terms and therefore must be used carefully. They argue that discussion is needed within the community to set standards for age categories. They also note that majority of the methods used for determining age are over 30 years old and the cautionary notes about using them are often ignored. Increased discussion on an international basis is needed to create more reliable and widespread standards. Luckily for us, in the digital age communication around the world is much easier, and while complete standardization may not be successful at least discussion may reduce the variation.

Works Cited
ResearchBlogging.orgC. G. Falys, & M. E. Lewis (2011). Proposing a way forward: A review of standardisation in the use of age categories and ageing techniques in osteological analysis International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 21, 704-716 : 10.1002/oa.1179

Roksandic M, & Armstrong SD (2011). Using the life history model to set the stage(s) of growth and senescence in bioarchaeology and paleodemography. American journal of physical anthropology, 145 (3), 337-47 PMID: 21469078

Brickley and McKinley 2004. Guidelines to the Standards for Recording Human Remains.

Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994. Research Series, no. 44. Arkansas Archaeological Survey, Fayetteville.

Ubelaker D. 1999. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (3rd edn). Taraxacum Press: Washington, DC.

Ferembach D, Schwidetzky I, Stoukal M. 1980. Recommendations for age and sex diagnoses of skeletons. Journal of Human Evolution 9: 517–549

Bass W. 1995. Human Osteology (4th edn). Special Publication No. 2 of the Missouri Archaeological Society: Columbia


7 responses to “Determining Age in Human Remains, Call for Standards

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I am not an osteologist (took a couple of classes in correspondence with my grad work, but not my specialty whatsoever). The number of arguments I have gotten in with students and ‘armchair anthropologists’ that you cannot, in fact, determine accurate age with a small portion of leg bone – cuz they saw it on “Bones.”….
    Anyhow, I’m really enjoying your blog!

  2. “They found that the majority of the 200 articles didn’t list where their standards were from…” Holy shit, really? In these top-tier, peer-reviewed publications? I always teach my students to cite their standards. If they don’t, their grades are heavily docked. I can’t imagine not citing my aging/sexing techniques in a peer-reviewed publication. I’ve gotta read the Falys and Lewis article.

    Unfortunately, a lot is going to have to change before we agree on an international standard. And there is going to be a lot of reticence on the part of various cadres of bioarchaeologists to change the methods they’ve been using for the past decade or more. Plus, it doesn’t help that people are inventing new methods of aging/sexing every day – based on random carpal bones, etc.

  3. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 19: Loads of Links for Year’s End « Contagions·

  4. Katy,

    good job outlining the deficiencies of osteological aging. Though you touched upon it, nutrition and workload have a big effect on “skeletal aging”. Excessive work will delay hormone driven maturity. An overworked 24 year old female (e.g. slave) can demonstrate a skeleton similar to that of a 16 year old. Nutrition is a critical factor. Deficiencies (famine) in food or vitamins effect hormone influenced growth, bone metabolism, etc. A starved individual has a more immature skeleton and can be confused with a younger person.
    Also remember politics. many anthros have a bias for older individuals implying the “old days and ways” were better as evidenced by increased longevity.

  5. more than most realize….thus skeletal aging is not a little imperfect, its a whole lot imperfect as we do it.

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