Can one saw somebody's femur in half, and figure out how old the person was?

30 January 2011


If one can determine a past disease from examining a bone, can one saw somebody's femur in half and figure out how old the person was?


Charlotte - Well we try not to saw femurs in half to find out age. We normally look at degeneration, particularly of the pelvis and the ribs and the skull, particular features that we recognise as being associated with age. However, having said that, it's not a very accurate science, because people age and degenerate in different ways and at different rates, but you can actually look at the microscope structure of bones like the femur, and looking at a particular picture gives a closer correlation to the age at death of that individual. But you can also look at teeth and you look at the roots of teeth. As you get older, they become more translucent if you put a light behind them, and that's better correlated with age at death too, but that's not a destructive method like you would do for the femur.

Diana - I understand that once adults start dying after the age of 35, that's when it's really difficult to assign an age to their body. So, which is the best method for doing those adults?

Charlotte - Well, it's looking at the cut femurs and the teeth really, but most people again really don't have access to the technology to do that. But I think the idea that everyone died young in the past doesn't hold true because I don't think our methods are really well-developed enough to pick out those people in the older age groups yet.

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