Modern Human

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Kari Bruwelheide, M.A.

Kari Bruwelheide examines the inside of an iron coffin with fellow Smithsonian researchers.

Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Kari Bruwelheide is a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where she studies human bones, including skeletons from the distant past and more recent remains involved in criminal cases. She stumbled upon her career path by accident when she volunteered on a project during her undergraduate studies. Much of her current research in bioarchaeology, skeletal biology, and forensic anthropology is focused on the early colonial period in the Americas. Favorite parts of her job are that each day presents a new mystery and a new person to meet and learn about on a personal level, and the ability to give closure to families of victims of criminal cases. Although she's learned about so many people, the one that’s had a large impact on her was a young boy who died at historic Jamestown, Va. His incredible story makes the past real and relevant to people, especially younger people who are rarely represented in historical writings or documents. Kari received her bachelor's degree in English and Anthropology from Luther College in Iowa and a master's degree in Physical Anthropology from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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Terry Collection Modern Human Skull
Photo by Kari Bruwelheide, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History

About the Terry Collection

The Robert J. Terry Anatomical Collection is one of the world's premier anatomical research and teaching collections. It represents a mostly pre-antibiotic, early 20th century population from the mid-western part of the United States that can be compared to 21st century skeletal remains to assess biological changes in the American population related to growth, health, disease, diet, and demography. Due to the completeness of the supporting information and excellent skeletal preservation, it is a primary resource for studies of bone pathology, skeletal biology, and forensic anthropology, averaging nearly 100 scholarly visits each year. This collection is fundamental for measuring the American experience during the past two centuries and is invaluable as a reference series for class room instruction and training the next generation of osteologists, skeletal biologists and bone focused medical professionals. The collection is now being incorporated into long distance learning through on-line databases and digital 3D imaging due to increasing requests for access and high levels of interest from medical and university communities.

Forensic anthropologists use an osteometric board to measure long bones to determine height.
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Using Long Bones to Determine Height

The human leg is made up of four major bones that connect the pelvis to the feet. These include the patella (knee cap), and the three long bones: the femur (thigh bone), the tibia (shin bone), and the fibula (lower leg bone). Forensic anthropologists can use these bones to collect different types of information about a person. One thing they can learn is how tall a person may have been when they were alive. To do this, they measure the long bones using specialized tools and compare the results to a database that contains the measurements of bones from individuals of known stature. Mathematical formulas have also been created to calculate stature using the maximum lengths of specific long bones. Although this will not produce an exact measurement of the person, it will give the anthropologists a narrow range that is considered to be trustworthy. While all of the long bones of the body can be used in such analysis, the bones of the leg produce the best results.

Smithsonian researchers analyze data found while uncovering human remains.
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Studying Human Bones

By studying human bones, physical and forensic anthropologists can learn a number of things about events of the past and the present, and the people who experienced them. The condition of bones, the location they are found in, and items they are found with can inform researchers about burial practices and the circumstances leading to disposal of the remains. The bones themselves can tell researchers how old a person was, how tall they may have been, if they were a man or a woman, and what role they played in their society. Information on diet and activities in life can be found in bones by looking at their composition. Researchers can also learn about diseases that leave marks in bones and how they affect individuals and populations through time. Bones can sometimes tell researchers how a person died and this information may help law enforcement agencies solve modern forensic cases.

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