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Age Estimation from the Pubic Symphysis: Back to Basics

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Event Dates
Event Duration
1.5 Hours

Estimating age at death is a critical step in the creation of the biological profile of unidentified remains. While anthropologists use a number of skeletal age estimation techniques and indicators, the pubic symphysis joint on the pubic bone is one of the most commonly used for late adolescents and adults. Typically, methods utilizing the pubic symphysis rely on visual assessments of the topography and appearance of the joint surfaces and margins, which demonstrate somewhat predictable degenerative patterns corresponding to increasing age. The forensic approach for estimating age-at-death from the skeleton usually involves one decedent at a time. Because anthropologists are required to estimate the age for that one decedent using methods that were created on population-level data, and because variation exists in the aging process, broad age estimates are often created. Major criticisms of the pubic symphysis age phase methods center on these large age ranges comprising the phases, and the sample size and composition. In addition, newer statistical approaches to age-phase methods suggest that the classical linear regression models used in the original studies may contribute to the reduced accuracy levels because the models do not reflect true age phases, but rather, transitions in the reference sample. On a more basic level, students and practitioners may experience confusion when trying to evaluate specific anatomical features described in the phases of each method or visually represented on comparative casts, and thus, have a difficult time correctly applying the method.

This presentation will bring participants back to the basics by first briefly discussing the history of age estimation from the pubic symphysis and the development of the Todd (1920 and 1921), McKern and Stewart (1957), and Suchey-Brooks (Brooks and Suchey, 1990) methods. Next, the primary focus of the presentation will detail the anatomical features described in the Suchey-Brooks (SB) and Hartnett-Fulginiti (HF) phase descriptions. These anatomical features include the symphyseal face, pubic tubercle, ventral rampart, ventral arc, ventral beveling, dorsal plateau, upper extremity and lower extremity, ossific nodules, oval outline/rim, dorsal lipping, ventral ligamentous outgrowths, crenulations, and bone quality. Photographic examples of pubic symphyseal joints illustrating these listed features will be analyzed together and discussed. Once the anatomical features are better understood, the presentation will then focus on the creation of the revised seven phase HF method (Hartnett, 2010), followed by instruction as to its correct application. Each of the seven phases and noted variants will be explained and applied to photographic examples. In addition, the process behind the development of the Hartnett-Fulginiti skeletal collection of over 600 pubic bones and sternal ends of fourth ribs from a modern autopsy sample will be outlined.

By the end of the presentation, practitioners will be able to confidently recognize and interpret the anatomical features on images of real bone examples and in the written morphological phase descriptions of the SB and HF methods. Practitioners will be better able to utilize the HF revised seven phase method for estimating age-at-death from adult pubic symphyseal joint surfaces. Finally, practitioners will appreciate the difficulties associated with the creation of modern autopsy-derived skeletal samples for research and instruction.

Date Created: November 18, 2022