Are there problems with the taphonomy (arrangement) of the evidence found at the scene?

Case of the Heavily-Insured Businessman

As a forensic anthropologist, you are called in to identify some remains by an insurance company. A 34-year old Caucasian businessman, Mr. X was insured with their company; he had a life insurance policy worth $7 million dollars. The athletic, slim and wealthy Mr. X had traveled to South America on business. His vehicle had been seen out in a remote location off the highway, involved in serious accident; his rental car had crashed and then burned; there was no sign of Mr. X, only a few fragments of incinerated bones were found in the vehicle. A man’s watch (personally inscribed with Mr. X’s name from his wife) and a medical alert bracelet (indicating allergy to penicillin) were both found in the vehicle.

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The insurance company has asked you to investigate this case and see if you can find any remains overlooked by the local authorities, and to further examine the bone fragments already discovered.

The evidence that you find:

  • completely burned vehicle – due to intense heat, the glass was gone, blistered paint, roof melted
  • small gray curved bone (3-4 inches square)—this turns out to be top of cranium (found at bottom of heap of burned debris inside of the automobile; the bone was found upside down); outer surface of bone relatively undamaged; the inner, concave surface was burned away. You recover this bone when you examine the vehicle.
  • calcined fragments of bone and 4 teeth (recovered by forensic scene following accident)

Your expert examination of the evidence reveal:

  • cranial sutures almost completely ossified
  • bone fragments show evidence as being from stout bones with highly developed muscle attachment points and extensive signs of arthritis
  • no fillings or dental work in the recovered teeth
  • molars extremely worn
  • Shovel-shaped incisors

Other information:

The businessman, Mr. X, had purchased a bicycle earlier during his trip which he had kept in the vehicle. No bicycle (or charred/burned remains of a bicycle) was recovered in the vehicle.

Questions to answer about this case:

  1. Are there problems with the taphonomy (arrangement) of the evidence found at the scene?(e.g., Does the cranial location indicate that the individual had been driving?). If so, what are they?
  2. Do the human bones and teeth found in the vehicle belong to Mr. X? Why or why not?What other tests might you perform to confirm identity?
  3. Does the missing bicycle tell us anything about the case? Is this just circumstantial?
  4. What would you tell the insurance company, based on your forensic anthropological expertise – should they pay the claim now to Mr. X’s widow or pursue additional investigations?

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