ISU Headlines

New Idaho State University Anthropology professor uses long bone pictures to identify missing children; develops reliable tool for police, forensic pathologists

Posted May 6, 2014

Forensic anthropologist Kyra Stull, who just earned her doctorate at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and will start at Idaho State University this fall, has developed a reliable tool that police, forensic pathologists and anthropologists can use to age and sex the remains of unidentified missing children.

In the process, she has also compiled the world’s largest known sample of children’s long bone images. She has developed of the first accurate and reliable technique in the world to estimate the age and sex of children based on skeletal remains.Kyra Stull

Stull developed the tool as part of her doctoral research in anatomy at the University of Pretoria. She was conferred her Ph.D. this spring and she will begin as an assistant professor in ISU’s anthropology department in August.

Her study is the first to successfully estimate the age and sex of children 12 and younger using an extensive number of measurements and statistical methods. As a next step, a computer software program will be developed that forensic anthropologists and other forensic practitioners can use, according to a press release from the University of Pretoria.

Stull will continue to do similar research while she is at ISU.

“I have already started collecting data in the United States and soon as I get to Idaho I will be applying for grants for me to travel and fund some graduates students to assist me with continuing this type of research,” said Stull, who is now living in Austin, Texas. “I think this will be a lifelong project for me.”

Scientists generally argue that differences between boys and girls are not fully established in their skeletons until they reach adolescence. Stull has, however, shown that it is indeed possible to accurately and reliably estimate the sex of children 12 and younger by using a large number of measurements from their long bones,including the humerus and femur. She applied statistical models that have yet to be used in anthropology for this purpose.

She obtained skeletal information of 1,380 children from Cape Town’s Salt River Forensic Pathology Service and Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. Stull analyzed Lodox Statscan radiographic images captured from this group of children. The Lodox Statscan is a full-body, low-dosage radiographic machine and is used in trauma units or in forensic laboratories during postmortem examinations.

“The machine was originally designed in South Africa for the diamond mining industry but has since been used in hospitals and morgues worldwide,” Stull said.

Her sample is reflective of the South African population, and has led to the development of the first accurate, reliable, and applicable technique in the world to estimate the age and sex of children. Historically, forensic anthropologists could only compare data to antiquated growth studies from North America and Europe.

Stull said estimating age from the skeletal components of a living child is complex, but it is even more difficult when the child is deceased and unknown. The main goal of a forensic anthropological analysis is to establish an accurate biological profile consisting of estimations of sex, age, ancestry and stature of unidentified human remains.

“The biological profile is then used by the police to narrow down the list of missing individuals to ultimately identify the person,” Stull said. “Homicide involving children is ubiquitous in all countries and dire improvements are needed to address the accuracy of methods routinely used in forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, and other related fields.”

Images such as is obtained through Lodox Statscan are proving to be invaluable, as researchers do not have to rely on actual collected bone samples to build biological profiles.

The title of Stull’s doctoral dissertation is “An Osteometric Evaluation of Age and Sex Differences in the Long Bones of South African Children from the Western Cape.”

Please note: The bulk of the information in this release is courtesy of a press release written by Nicolize Mulder, issued by the University of Pretoria. Information has been added to show Stull’s connection to Idaho State University.