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What is Osteology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2016
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Osteology is the study of bone. Studying bone, specifically human bone, is a topic of interest in a number of scientific disciplines, including medicine, physical anthropology, and archeology. Osteologists study everything from the morphology of the bones of ancient organisms to the remains of murder victims. A number of colleges and universities offer training in osteology from a number of perspectives to students who are interested, and active practitioners in the field can work in an assortment of different settings.

While bones may seem mute to the average eye, to an osteologist, they are teeming with information. Studying a single bone can provide a great deal of information about the organism or person it came from; bones carry markers which can be used to determine age, stature, occupation, and even racial background. If a complete skeleton is available, an osteologist can assemble a surprising amount of information.

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One area in which osteology is frequently employed is in the examination of human remains. Modern remains may be studied to see if it is possible to identify the victim, and to provide information about the manner of death. For example, an osteologist may be called into examine a skeleton and return the information that the skeleton belongs to a black waitress in her early twenties who has had one child; markers in the bone can provide all of this information to the discerning eye. The osteologist may also be able to identify unusual features in the bone which could assist with identification, and to look for clues into the cause of death, such as a fracture of the hyoid bone indicating strangulation.

The field of osteology can also include the examination of ancient human remains. In this case, the interest is scientific, as an active murder investigation is not involved. Studying the remains of ancient humans can provide information about the lives they lived, with osetologists looking at things like the condition of their teeth at the time of death, the sign of occupational markers in the bone which could provide information about the status of the person in life, and studying indicators of race which could provide a perspective into the racial makeup of ancient cultures. Animal skeletons can be of equal interest, and even osteologists who specialize in human remains are often familiar with animal remains because they need to learn to distinguish between bone from different species, and they may be familiar with animals which lived in close association with ancient human societies.

Osteologists study a lot of bones in the course of their training and throughout their careers. Many have access to osteology laboratories which include large libraries of bone, allowing them to study bone at different rates of development, to see physical demonstrations of bone abnormalities and hallmarks which could provide clues into identity, and to examine bones of historic interest. Skilled osteologists can accurately identify a fragment of bone, sometimes by touch alone, and they are very familiar with the incredible amount of variation seen in the skeleton.

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