19 Aug 2022

Children's remains found: Examining bones can give clues to early lives - expert

From Checkpoint, 5:50 pm on 19 August 2022

A forensic scientist says examining the bones of two children found hidden in suitcases could reveal details of how they were treated during their young lives and what happened to them.

An Auckland family made the grisly discovery after buying the contents of an abandoned storage locker in an online auction, but police have reiterated they are not involved in the incident.

Yesterday, police revealed the discovered human remains were of children, believed to be aged between five and 10, and may have been in the suitcases for several years.

Otago University lecturer Angela Clark is a forensic anthropologist who also works with police and in the justice system. 

In her field, she examines bones and teeth to piece together information on, for example around any potential trauma or injuries, nutrition, and severe illnesses around the time of death as well as 'age at death' estimates.

"We can also look at what happened to them during their lives as well," Dr Clark told Checkpoint. "So our environment and the way that we're treated and things that we've done during our lives, especially in that childhood time frame, can etch themselves into our bones and teeth that are everlasting.

"Also in those early years, if the child suffered a stress - so by that we could mean a period of really severe illness like an infection or if they were malnourished - that would potentially leave marks in the teeth that we can also read."

How much information could be detected would depend on the condition or environment of the deceased, she said.

"It makes things harder when we're looking at DNA, because DNA is very fragile and it can be degraded quite easily by time.

"But the technology is ever improving and getting very, very sensitive. 

"So there's not a lack of hope at all in this situation in terms of the time depth, and it's just a matter of finding out as much as possible that we can and also from different specialties working together as a team and using that forensic evidence with anything that the police find for context and putting that story together."

Teams in forensic human identification often consist of a forensic dentist, forensic biologist who looks at the DNA, forensic anthropologist who examines the bones, and a forensic pathologist, she said.

"That team together is the core team who then report to the police or to the coroner and liaise with the rest of the investigation."