When I was helping out at the Smithsonian, folks LOVED the pathology section of the public forensic lab! Who doesn’t?! I, too, have sat around with the fam, watching NCIS, CSI, Bones, etc., and listened to them discuss the wounds and injuries of the found human remains.
So, I’m going to help you out with your forensic crime solving vocab by shedding some knowledge on the terms: ‘post-, peri-, and ante– mortem,’ and why these distinctions are important.
Ante-mortem injuries are injuries that happen to the bone while a being is still alive. Those injuries show signs of remodeling. This is when the bone gets hurt and heals. Usually the area around has smoothed around the fracture lines, and you can see and feel where the bones have fused or mended together.
These injuries may or may not have anything to do with the case. They can indicate something as common as a broken ankle caused by playing basketball, or as dark and nefarious as an indication of long term abuse.
The skull to the right is an example of “healed sharp trauma on the skull” (Pretoria skeletal collection). Basically, someone hit this guy on the head with a sharp object, but it didn’t kill him. Notice the area around the bone is smooth and rounded. He had a chance to heal.
Peri-mortem injuries are injuries or changes to the bone that occur at or near the time of death. The edges of the bone surrounding a perimortem injury tend to be sharp and crisp. One very important characteristic is that there is no sign of healing- the bone has not had a chance to attempt to repair itself. For investigators, these injuries can be particularly important as they can indicate cause of death.
In this rib bone, you can see that the break is very clean and sharp. There is no smoothing around the bone, no signs of remodeling. The bone had no opportunity to repair itself before the individual died.
Post– mortem injuries are injuries that happen to the bone after death. These breaks make the bone look rough and ragged. Bone that may be exposed to the air will be dry and brittle. And, as with perimortem injuries, there is no sign of healing (remodeling). These types of breaks can happen if the remains have been moved, tampered with with after death, trampled on over time, chewed, etc.
In this image below, the top bone is a femur from an extinct New Zealand Moa bird. On the left side, the spongy inside of the bone is now visible. It looks rough. That damage is from wear and tear of time, long after the bird died.
That’s all for now super sleuths! I hope this makes your forensic show watching that much more enjoyable and informed!