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"Strange Bones": Museum Debunks TV Crime Shows

This specimen displays a fusion between the 2nd and 3rd ribs, a congenital abnormality known as bifurcated ribs. The ribs are separate at their vertebral ends, but become a single rib at their midpoint and remain fused all the way to the sternal end.
photo courtest of the San Diego Museum of Man
This specimen displays a fusion between the 2nd and 3rd ribs, a congenital abnormality known as bifurcated ribs. The ribs are separate at their vertebral ends, but become a single rib at their midpoint and remain fused all the way to the sternal end.
"Strange Bones": Museum Debunks TV Crime Shows
We'll talk about a new exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man called Strange Bones. It's an opportunity to present some intriguing skeletal curiosities to the public and to find out what's true and what's not when it comes to bones in forensic science.


A public lecture, "Crime Show Debunking" will be held Saturday, Jan. 8 at 11 a.m. at the San Diego Museum of Man.

On TV crime shows, an investigator can tell an amazing number of things from a victim's skeletal remains. Not only estimates of height and gender, but sometimes where the deceased was born and what they did for a living.

In real life, the information derived from skeletons is usually not as detailed or dramatic -but bones can reveal many marvels and mysteries.


A new exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man displays some interesting, and poignant examples of human skeletal curiosities.


Tori Randell, Curator of Physical Anthropology and Acting Curator of Collections at the San Diego Museum of Man.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. On TV crime shows, an investigator can tell an amazing number of things from a victim's skeletal remains, not only height and gender, but sometimes where the deceased was born and what they did for a living. If real life, the information derived from skeleton system usually not as detailed or dramatic. But bones can reveal many marvels and mysteries. A new exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man displays some interesting and poignant examples of human skeletal curiosities. Here to discuss what bones can and cannot tell us is my guest, Tori Randall, curator of physical anthropology and acting curator of collections at the Museum of Man. Tory, welcome.

RANDALL: Thank you, good morning.


CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you wonder how true the forensic anthropology really is on shows like Bones or CSI? What is the most outrageous example of TV forensic analysis that you've seen? Give us a call, share your comments or ask your questions. The number is 1-888-895-5727. So tory, do TV crime shows get it wrong when they're dealing with skeletons and forensic evidence.

RANDALL: I don't think it's so much that they get it wrong but they just sensationalize it far too much. Which is what you would expect on a TV show or anything entertainment wise. So it's more like they just take it a little bit too far. They can't quite learn all of that in the 1 second that it takes them to learn it.

CAVANAUGH: Give us an example, perhaps of something that you've seen that didn't quite jell for you.

RANDALL: Most of -- most of the things that have to do with forensic anthropology, which is using the skeleton to determine who the individual is, it's mostly that they do it too quickly. So, you know, they walk up on a crime scene with a skeleton on the ground and they look at it for 1 second and go, oh, well, that's a female age 30 to 35 who was Caucasian and six feet tall. Of and there's no way that you can do all of that in the 1 second that they do it. But, you know, they only have 60 minutes or 30 minutes to show the TV show. So it's not that crazy to expect that they would do that. But it's more, usually, you would need to go back to the library, take measurements, plug the measurements into formulas to get all of those kinds of informations.

CAVANAUGH: But it is true, you can get that kind of information right?

RANDALL: Yes, definitely, you can. Those are all just basic personal identification factors that you need to try to determine when you have a skeleton. So things like age or sex or ancestry or stature are all typical things you can determine. It just takes a lot more time to do.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of condition does the skeleton have to be in to be able to make those kinds of determinations?

RANDALL: You usually need -- depending on what you're trying to determine, so whether you're trying to determine whether it's a male or female, the best thing to have is the pelvis, and if you don't have that, the skull is the next best. So the skeleton has to be fairly complete. If it's not and all you have is, you know, a leg bone, there are still some things you can tell, but your not gonna be able to narrow it down quite so much of so you're gonna be able to tell maybe how tall they were, and maybe if it's male or female like, you know, if it's really big and muscular, it might lead you to think it might be a male. But you know, there's females that are big and muscular as well. So you might not be able to learn as much if the skeleton isn't complete.

CAVANAUGH: I'm talking with Tori Randall, she curator of physical anthropology at the San Diego Museum of Man. We're talking in connection with a new exhibit that's up at the museum that is basically called Strange Bones. And it shows interesting examples of human skeletal curiosities. Right now, we're talking about the way that forensic anthropology is characterized on some TV shows and in movies. And taking your calls if you'd like to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. What about the technology that's used in the analysis of skeletal remains on TV shows and in movies? Is that somewhat accurate?

RANDALL: No, again, it's usually sensationalized. So things like doing a facial reconstruction, you know, that is something that can be done, but it's usually based on skeletal markers and muscle tissue thickness and you build a face onto a skull. Whereas they'll take, you know, a skull and they take at a picture of it, and then and there they project it up onto a screen with a beautiful face. And --

CAVANAUGH: That looks like a photograph.

RANDALL: Exactly. Yeah. And it can't -- let's not like that. Of it doesn't help that quickly. Things like DNA, you know, it usually takes weeks to find out -- you know, they plug it into a system and it comes back immediately. So things like that are also -- you know, they just take it a little bit too far.

CAVANAUGH: And on TV, many times the labs themselves are sort of very -- linked very well, they sort of have mood lighting, they're darker than your average laboratory, and they have things like -- on Bones the TV show, they have something I think called an angulator that almost projects a holographic image of the skeletal remains. You got anything like that in your lab?

RANDALL: No, definitely not. We do have, like, laser scanners that will scan a skull and you can then use that 3D image but not projected up and spin it around and do those kinds of things.

CAVANAUGH: What's your reaction when you see things like that?

RANDALL: You know, I personally don't have a major problem with it, because I love those shows. If those shows didn't exist, I would never have made it through grad school. So I love those shows and watching them is fun for me. And it's entertainment. And I think of it as entertainment. The problem of it is that I know it does result in problems when the general public doesn't understand what is and is not possible. There's something called the CSI effect that psychologists have determined, that juries will expect that there's more that can be done in a case when there really isn't.

CAVANAUGH: Because not every case has a wealth of forensic evidence that can be presented to the jury. I want to talk a little bit more about that. But I don't want to lose this point. So when you were going to school and learning how to be I real physical anthropologist, you were watching TVs and movies with fake anthropologists and loving them.

RANDALL: Exactly. I did. And you know, I'm one of those people that I need TV on in the background when I'm working and doing papers of law and order, oh, my gash, if law and order didn't exist, oh! I would never have made it. I love those shows.

CAVANAUGH: Even though there's such a contradiction between what you're actually dealing with in a real lab with real potential evidence or skeletons and when you're seeing on TV and movies?

RANDALL: Yeah. Of but I think it's -- there's just as many cool things that are going on 234 my lab, that even if it's not quite as elaborate and being projected a wall somewhere, I still think this it's really amazing. And the things that you can learn from skeletons is phenomenal. And you can -- I mean, it's something that I would never have thought was possible. And it's amazing what you can learn.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Tony Randall, she's curator of physical anthropology and acting curator of collections at the San Diego Museum of Man of we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you'd like to join our conversation. So tell us a little bit more about the problems associated with the fact that what we see on TV is not really true to life when it comes to forensic evidence either gathered from a skeleton or from a crime scene. The CSI effect where juries want more than they're getting.

RANDALL: Yeah, I don't have any personal experience with the CSI effect because I've never been involved in a case like that. But from what I can tell, it's the idea that a jury might not convict someone because they think that there should have been more evidence. But that kind of evidence doesn't exist. But they think if there was one little tiny spot of blood, you should have been able to tell who that person was. And that's not always possible. In terms, though, of like my work and I would do in a lab situation, I have issues like that too. Where we'll have someone come in, and they found -- a CRM company that found a skeleton when they were doing construction or they found a bone is more like it. They don't usually find the whole skeleton. So they find a bone and they come in and they want to know, well, is it a male or a female? And they want to know all this stuff which you can't usually tell from one single bone. You can maybe narrow it down, but it's not quite as much information, but they think you can get that information because they've seen it in the movies or on TV.

CAVANAUGH: So what can investigators, forensic physical anthropologists actually get from a skeleton?

RANDALL: They're usually trying to narrow it down. So say you find a skeleton, and there's -- it's in a city where there's a thousand missing people, I'm just making up a number. So this one skeleton could be one of a thousand people. What they want to do is narrow it down of so if they can color it's a male or a female, okay, now that cut our thousand down into 500. And now we've determined that it's someone who's six feet tall. Oh, well that cut it down into one in only 50 people. And we determined that they were 30 to 40, oh, well, now that's only out of these 25 people. So they're narrowing it down. And then they can take those people and use more sophisticated techniques like bite mark analysis or -- I'm sorry, dental records or medical records or DNA. Now they're only working with 25 people that it could possibly be rather than a thousand.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Of and how often because I see this a lot on TV. How often can people actually -- can investigators actually tell a cause of death from skeletal remains?

RANDALL: That's probably more likely to be able to tell right off the bat. You would -- there's always gonna be more that you'll want to look at when you get to the lab, but if you see a skeleton lying on the ground and there's a huge hole in the head, if you can tell that it was something done before death rather than a post mortem injury, then that's something you say, oh, well they dies of blunt force trauma to the head.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, many times we see skeletons from -- ancient skeletons that archaeologists are basically able to determine well, this guy apparently fell on its head because that evidence is still there. Let me tell people once again who I'm speaking with, Tori Randall, who is curator of physical anthropology, and we're talking with a new exhibit up at the San Diego Museum of Man called Strange Bones our number here is 1-888-895-5727. So you gave us a little hint about how maybe life in your laboratory in the real world of examining bones is just as interesting as what you see on television. So tell us what you can actually learn by studying skeletons.

RANDALL: Well, my main field of research is paleopathology, which is using the skeleton to determine any traumatic injuries or pathological conditions that are remaining in the skeleton. So I try to look for things that can tell me something about the life history of the individual. So if they are suffering from some type of nutritional deficiency, that will leave evidence in the bones sometimes. If they had some type of injury, you upon, a healed fracture to the leg, a healed fracture to the arm, can that tell us something that it was a defensive wound. Were they in some type of more dangerous society where they were dealing with war fare? So trying to reconstruct the life of an individual when all you have is the skeleton.

CAVANAUGH: And where do you get these skeletons?

RANDALL: We have a number of very good pathology collections which were collected in a variety of situations. One of our collections, the Hrdlička Collection, was collected for the 1915 exposition. It was the Museum of Man's very first collection. And we also have some this were anatomy professors', like, teaching collections that were then donated to the museum. And we do have some archaeological skeletons too, but they're older. Because we don't actively excavate any longer of but there are some older archaeological skeletons as well that Were excavated by curators back in the 60s or the 20s even.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering if the field has advanced in technology or what you can learn from a bone since the time you started in school to now that you're a practicing anthropologist.

RANDALL: Yeah, it definitely has. The technology that they show on TV or in the movies, it's probably definitely gonna get there. There are things like this laser scanner I just mentioned we would have never had something like that when I started school. So we have digitizers where you can just touch the little pinpoint approximate a part of the skeleton, and it takes a measurement and plug its into a formula and re61 instructs the skull. There are really amazing things out there that the field has come a long way.

CAVANAUGH: That does sound amazing. We have a caller on the line, Doug is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Doug, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much for ticking my call. I just wanted to say that one of the issues with the CSI type shows is that they are essentially science fiction. They're showing what's possible and what doesn't exist today. . And I'm an engineer, and specifically in robotics, and this is a problem that we've been having for decades. That everyone expects that we can make R2D2 now, and we really can't. So it's a very similar problem the lay public doesn't understand what the current limitations really are.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Doug, has there been any outreach in your field to kind of get the public up to speed on what's actually possible in your line?

NEW SPEAKER: Certainly. I would say that the first series of technology games for schools is a good example of science technology and engineering and mathematics type training that we're trying to get out to kids so that they know both where job opportunities are in the science fields like anthropology, but also that they'll know where we're really at.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I appreciate the call. Thanks very much. I I'm wondering though if that kind of super sized anthropology that you see in TV and movies isn't the kind of thing that actually hooks kids and gets them so excited about going into that field.

RANDALL: That's an excellent point. I have seen a lot of students who love archaeology just because they love Indiana Jones. So I mean, if it's gonna get kids interested in anthropology, I'm all for it.

CAVANAUGH: Was there a time when skeletons were under estimated as a resource for information?

RANDALL: Definitely. There are some collections that we have where, like, at that time in the twenties or the thirties they weren't interested in the vertebral column. So I'll have entire collections, where they actually excavated, and it was a full complete skeleton but they just didn't take the vertebrae. So I have this full complete skeleton with no spine. And it's just because at that time they didn't think there was anything interesting to be learned from the spine.


RANDALL: So there are things like that, that just basic curation has changed too.

CAVANAUGH: So in other words when they took the skeleton from wherever it was, they just sort of threw away the spine.

RANDALL: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That must kill you to know that.

RANDALL: It does, it does.

CAVANAUGH: But I want to also focus on what's happening at this Strange Bones exhibit at the Museum of Man, because there are a lot of bones that weren't thrown away. Of a lot of very interesting things that you wouldn't expect to come across. Tell us about what we'll see in this exhibit.

RANDALL: The exhibit basically focuses on the fact that the skeleton is a living tissue. And it will change over time if bones -- if there's parts of the that is needed or not needed. Or in it's being reshaped or reformed due to stress or a habitual activity, that it will change over time. So the exhibit focuses on different situations like whether it's trauma or a nutritional deficiency or an infectious disease that will change the skeleton and what it looks like when it's being -- I'm sorry, I'm blanking. Being, like, affected by that disease or that pathology.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. So we have a tendency, when I say we, I mean the lay public, have a tendency to think of bones as, you know, pretty solid like teeth. You don't expect your teeth to grow into any unusual way. You just expect a femur to look like a femur. But that's not always the case.

RANDALL: No, the teeth situation is much different. Because if you break a tooth, you have to go to the dentist. It's not gonna heal itself. A bone will heal itself. And the hope is, it's gonna heal properly. That it will be popped back into place, and set properly and heal properly. But sometimes people don't do that. And so their bones will heal at an abnormal angle, where maybe one bone will be shorter than the other leg, because it didn't get popped into place right. Of if you have a dislocated hip, you can then form a new socket if it doesn't get popped back into place. So there's things like that that you'll be able to see after death and can tell you something about what that person's life was like.

CAVANAUGH: And you can see this on the exhibit. You can also see where people have deliberately tried to reshape their skeletons upon tell us about that.

RANDALL: That is a cultural modification where if there's something in a society or in a culture that they think is particularly beautiful or something that's a high status symbol, they'll actually try to change the shape of their bones like their skull. They will deform their skull, and those people who have a different shaped skull stand out from everyone else, and they're the high status people.

CAVANAUGH: How do they go about doing that?

RANDALL: The skull deformation is done in a variety of ways depending on the culture. They'll sometimes wrap it, like, with linen all the way around the skull to kind of elongate it, or they'll put boards in the front or back.


RANDALL: Yes. I'm sorry. It has to be done when they're still forming. So it's done in infancy. And so it changes shape.

CAVANAUGH: Is this a painful process?

RANDALL: Probably not. Not the cranial deformation 'cause it's happening when your bones are all still so pliable and it's still forming. They kind of just form into the shape that its had. There's other things, though, that would be painful, like maybe foot binding or, like, corset wearing. Those types of things will be painful.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you do have examples of foot binding. What will do the feet look like? Can you describe them.

RANDALL: Basically issue it's easier for me if you think of your hand of so lay your hand out flat and pull your fingers up to your palm, that's basically when you're doing to your foot. You're pulling the toes up to the heel. And so it's basically, like, bent in half.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, wow. That would be painful, I imagine, after a while. And I think some of the most intriguing bones in this exhibit at the Museum of Man are those that show the results of disease. Because you don't necessarily think of bones being -- being affected by disease. Tell us some ways they can be.

RANDALL: First of all, the disease has to be something that's going on for a while. Something that hits you quickly and you pass away quickly isn't gonna have a chance to affect your bones. It has to be more of a chronic illness. So things like tuberculosis or syphilis things that you deal with for a long time, they affect the bones. It kind of looks like the bones have been beaten away. There's new, porous areas and holes in the bones that shouldn't be there. There's other things there that are more specific, like a parasite disease, you get bit by a bug and now there's a parasite in you. Like we have an example of Leishmaniasis, which is a kissing bug, and it kind of eats -- the parasite causes the bone to get eaten away around the mouth.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, dear. Yes. As I say, these are Strange Bones, curiosities that people can see, and really wonder at. I'm wondering though, in the final minutes of our conversation here, what do you see coming up forensically in looking at bones? Not just forensically but in learning about bones and different cultures and at different times. Are there new technologies on the horizon that are gonna be able to let you see deeper into these bones so to speak?

RANDALL: I hope so. And it's always our hope. When we're doing some type of research a skeleton, we don't want to do anything invasive that's gonna break it or, you know, destroy a part of the skeleton. Because the idea is that maybe some day there will be a new technology that we could use that. You know, right now, that bone, oh, let's just get rid of a finger, we'll crush that down and do something with that finger 'cause we don't need fingers of buff then, ten years from now, what if that one bone is the one bone they can use to find out something? So we try, you know, the hope is that it will keep expanding and we'll keep learning more and more.

CAVANAUGH: You're not throwing away anymore spines?

RANDALL: No, definitely not.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that Tony Randall will be giving a lecture at the Museum of Man, that's this Saturday, the topic is crime show debunking of it's at 11 AM, and it's free to the public. And I want thank you so much for coming in here and speaking with us today.

RANDALL: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, it's the weekend preview as These Days continues on KPBS.