Forensic Fridays

19th Century Amputation Results in 300% Mortality Rate

Dr. Robert Liston, nicknamed the "Fastest Knife in the West End", was a 19th century surgeon known for conductin surgeries in record time to reduce pain and shock in an era before anestesia. Liston, surrounded by spectators, conducted an amputation in under 2.5 minutes, from the first incision to the final suture. Liston was a bit of a showman in addition to surgeon and has been said, prior to surgeries, announce to the medical students watching, "Time me, gentleman. Time me!"

In the whirlwind and speed of this amputation, Liston managed to cut off the finger of one of his assistants, resulting in the assistant dying due to infection. Unfortunately the patient himself also succumbed to infection and passed away afterwards. Furthermore, during the haste of the procedure, it's said that Liston accidentally cut through the coat of a spectator with his scalpel as he was switching instruments. This caused great shock to the spectator, who thought he had been stabbed. He inevitably died due to shock. 


Time me, gentlemen! The bravado and bravery of Robert Liston

'Time Me, Gentlemen': The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century

The Story of Robert Liston and his Surgical Skill

Is a 1.45 million year old Tibia the earliest evidence of Cannibalism?

A recent discovery was made in a Kenyan museum of cut marks on a 1.45 milllion year old tibia. These butmarks have gone unnoticed until now and they are suspected to be evidence of cannibalism. Researchers are unsure which ancient Homo sapiens relative this tibia belongs to as only the tibia was found although, it has been suggested that the tibia could belong to either Paranthropus boisei or Homo erectus. There is no way for researchers to know which ancient Homo species made these marks either. 

There are nine marks on the tibia that all go in the same direction that are indicative of a stone tool metholodigy that was used to remove meat from bone. These cuts were made where the calf muscle attaches to the tibia. In addition to these cut marks, there were also two bite marks that are suspected to be from a big cat. 

This bone was found in 1970 by Mary Leakey in Kenya's Turkana region and Briana Pobiner came across this bone in 2017 while she was researching which ancient animals preyed upon our ancient human relatives. Pobiner molded the cut marks and sent them off to another paleoanthropologist, Micheal Pante, to look at as well. She did not give him any background information on where the cut marks were from or what she thought they were. Pante and Trevor Keevil had access to a database that has nearly 900 different tooth, butchery and other bone markings logged in it and each of these entries comes from a known origin. They made 3D scans of bone molds and then compared them to this database and that was how they learned what made the marks. 

There have been other potential evidence of cannibalism throughout ancient hominin times that is covered in this article, which you can read at

Handwerk, B. (2023, June 26). Our human relatives butchered and ate each other 1.45 million years ago.

Pendants Made From Giant Sloth Bones Found in Brazil, Dated Back to 25-27,000 Years Ago

Archeologists working in the Santa Elina rock shelter in Central Brazil have just found three giant sloth bones that are believed to have been perforated and polished by humans to be used as a pendant.

These pendants are significant as they are believed to be between 25,000 and 27,000 years old, and are currently the oldest known ornaments that have been uncovered in the Americas, as well as the only ones ever found to have been made from the bones of giant sloths. 

Research is being conducted within the Santa Elina rock shelter in recent years as in this cave, scientists have uncovered many rock paintings which are believed to have been created by indigenous populations who inhabited the area thousands of years ago. Since their discovery, scientists have been studying this rock shelter to gain a better understanding of Brazil’s prehistoric cultures, and have also found that it was also a shelter used by the now extinct species of giant sloths called Glossotherium phoenesis, which on average weighed around 600 kg, or 1323 pounds

Back to the pendants, they are made out of the sloths osteoderms, which are bony plates that are embedded in the sloths skin very similar to an armadillo’s scales.The team of researchers analysed three osteoderms found in the cave, some modified and some not, and found that on the modified osteoderms, there appeared to be microscopic marks that indicate they were polished by human hands prior to becoming fossilized.

Due to how extremely rare these pendants are, the researchers didn’t conduct carbon dating on them for fear of damaging them, however, they did date other materials found at the same location from the same sediment layer, such as some unmodified giant sloth bones, charcoal, and sediment, and they discovered that they are between 25,000 and 27,000 years old! 

This is a major discovery because the exact time period of when humans first inhabited south and north Americas is heavily debated by scientists, with a lot of research suggesting it was no longer than 16,000 years ago, and recent discoveries in New Mexico suggesting it could have been between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago. So, to date, this is possibly the oldest known artifacts of human life in the Americas! 

Source: Hunt, K. (2023, July 12). Ancient pendants made from giant sloth bones suggest humans were in Americas earlier than thought. CNN [Internet].

Forensic Artist gives us a glimpse into what 7th-century teen looked like

The remains of a 7th century 16 year old female were discovered in Trumpington, England, back in 2012. She was found buried on a carved wooden bed, wearing gold pins, fine clothing, and she wore a beautiful, ornate, gold cross around her neck. While this burial style, in a carved wooden bed is not uncommon across Europe, it is rare to see in England, with only 18 ever found in the UK, all of which had female remains. 

Isotopic analysis revealed the 16 year old moved from the Alps (possibly Southern Germany) when she was around 7 years old. She is believed to be a part of an elite group, possibly an early convert to Christianity, maybe even an arisocrat or held royal status. 

Two theories are that she may have been a political bride or political envoy sent to network and create links between kingdoms or that she was a nun, or someone important high in the Christian hierarchy, who may have been sent over when there was the shift of Paganism to early Christianity. 

Forensic Artist Hew Morrison completed a facial reconstruction of this teen as part of the Beneath our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region exhibition at the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This reconstruction was a way to humanize the remains and be able to visualize who archaeologists and scientists have been studying for almost a decade.

One interesting thing Hew Morrison discovered during the reconstruction was that the girl's left eye sat about 5mm lower than her right, something that would have been noticable while alive! 

You can read more about this reconstruction at these links:

Goodyear, Sheena. (2023, June 20). This is what scientists think a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon teen looked like. CBC News. [Internet]. 

Nalewicki, Jennifer. (2023, June 26). Face of 'elite' 7th-century girl buried in a bed with gold and jewels revealed after 1,300 years. LiveScience. [Internet].

Parker, Christopher. (2023, June 29). Forensic Artist Reconstructs the Face of a Teenager Who Lived 1,300 Years Ago. Smithsonian Magazine. [Internet]. 

DNA evidence identifies headless corpse in cave as 1916 axe murderer

In early 2020 or late 2019, a dismembered body that had been found in 1979 was identified as a murderer who disappeared a century earlier. The murderer was Joseph Henry Loveless. He escaped custody after killing his wife with an axe in 1916. Pieces of his dismembered body have been found since 1979 in a cave system in Idaho.

In 2019, these remains were given to the DNA Doe Project and they were able to match his DNA to an 87-year-old man living in California who was identified as his grandson. This man had no idea of his grandfather's criminal past.

Loveless' head is still missing, they have never found the saw he used to break out of jail and they do not know who killed him.

It is suspected that when his wife's family came into town for her funeral and saw how mutilated she was, they decided to treat him in a very similar fashion.

You can read more about this headless killer here

Wu, Katherine. “DNA Evidence Identifies Headless Corpse in Cave as 1916 Axe Murderer.”, January 7, 2020. 

2022 Nobel Prize Winner: Svante Paabo

In honour of forensic friday we decided to highlight Svante Pääbo who won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine!! He fully sequenced the Neanderthal genome in 2010 and was one of the first people to identify Denisovan’s. His contribution to science is incredible and we are so thankful for his tireless effort of looking into our past and what makes us “human”. Thank you Svante Pääbo and congratulations on your award!! 

What is the Olduvai Gorge??

The Olduvai Gorge is and archaeological site in Northern Tanzania on the eastern Serengeti Plain. This ravine has depostis that date back to a time span of 2,100,000 to 15,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found the remains of more than 50 hominins (our ancestors) and the most complete set of stone tools within the deposits on the side of the ravine. These discoveries are influential as they strengthen the argument that humans originated from Africa. It also provides the most continuous record of human evolution. 

Famous Finds in Olduvai Gorge:

Not found at Olduvai Gorge:

State of the art forensic techniques reveal evidence of interpersonal violence ca. 30,000 years ago

The Cioclovina calvaria, found in the Pestera Cioclovina cave of South Transylvania in 1941, is one of the few relatively well-preserved representatives of Europe’s earliest modern humans. The skull, dating back to about 33 thousand years from present, has two large fractures on the right side. For decades, researchers have debated the cause of these fractures, as the initial report by those who found it failed to document the cause of them, or even that they were present. Researchers have previously hypothesized that they were caused by explosions in the cave (which was a phosphate mine at the time), that the skull was mishandled by early researchers, that the cave collapsed, and even that the skull came from a victim of murder. Kranioti et al. (2019) wanted a more conclusive answer on the cause of the fractures, so they set out to find it themselves.

First, a computed tomography (CT) scan was performed on the skull to determine whether the fracture occurred ante- (before), peri- (during), or post- (after) mortem by looking for hints such as signs of healing and the shape of the fragments. Comparing the CT scan to the standard forensic criteria for timing of injuries, the researchers determined that the skull had been fractured during death (peri-mortem) — meaning the cause of the fracture was likely the reason for the person’s death. In addition, they found that the shape of the fracture was consistent with blunt force trauma, likely caused by a rounded object (such as a club or smoothed rock), and that the victim was likely facing their attacker at the time of the trauma. Unfortunately, as the only part of the skeleton recovered was the skull, we cannot know whether there are other injuries on the skeleton that are consistent with an attack with a blunt-object. However, the researchers concluded that based on their forensic investigation of the skull, the fractures were likely caused by a violent attack with a blunt object, and was likely the cause of this individual’s death. 

If the cause of death was indeed homicide, it raises the interesting question of whether this was an inter- or intra-species conflict. Was it between two Homo sapiens? Or perhaps between a Homo sapien and an early species of human, such as Neanderthals? Hopefully advancements in technology and further evidence can help us solve this mystery! 

If you’re interested in learning more about how modern forensic scientists solved a 33 thousand year old mystery, you can read the whole study here

Kranioti, E. F., Grigorescu, D., & Harvati, K. (2019, July 3). State of the art forensic techniques reveal evidence of interpersonal violence ca. 30,000 years ago. Plos one, 17(7).

Eviction and Crime: A Neighborhood Analysis in Philadelphia

A new study by researchers at Rutger’s University and University of South Florida has found a positive correlation between the eviction rates in Philadelphia to the crime rates for 2006 to 2016. Currently, Philadelphia has the fourth highest eviction rate in the US, with about 1 in 17 renting households facing eviction. 

The authors hypothesized that residential instability related to involuntary moves, like eviction, impact a communities overall crime rate more-so than housing instability characterized by voluntary moves. Eviction has also been associated with poverty, especially in already disadvantaged neighbourhoods. They further suggest that part of the reason for eviction-caused displacement increasing crime rates in neighbourhoods is due to the impact it has on a neighbourhood’s ability to develop a crime-prevention program. 

To measure the relationship between eviction and crime, Semenza et al. (2021) compiled data from various sources, including each census tract in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, and the American Community Survey (ACS). The three crime statistics measured were the rates of homicide, robbery, and burglary.

The authors found that their hypothesis was supported, that neighbourhood eviction rates were directly associated with homicide, robbery, and burglary rates. Their study further supports the previous psychological and criminological literature that finds a direct correlation between poverty and crime rates. 

Semenza, D. C., Stansfield R., Grosholz, J. M., & Link, N. W. (2021, August 3). Eviction and Crime: A Neighborhood Analysis in Philadelphia. Crime & Delinquency. 1 - 26.

French ex-officer's DNA ends 35-year murder hunt

Nicknamed “Le Grêlé” (meaning the pockmarked man), this killer was linked to four murders and six sexual assault cases against women spanning 1986 to 1994, although there is suspected to be more. 

In a recent attempt to solve this cold case, in 2021 an investigating magistrate sent letters requesting DNA samples to 750 military police who were stationed in the Paris region at the time of these attacks. One of the men who received a letter was François Vérove. 

Vérove was summoned by police on the 24th of September to provide a DNA sample, but he went unheard from. Just a few days later, on September 27, his wife reported him missing. Two days later on September 29, his body was found in a rented flat in a city if Southern France, along with a suicide note. In the note, Vérove suggested that he was the killer, and that he had “previous impulses” in the past, but “got himself together” when he married his wife and had children. His DNA was taken and found to match the unknown suspect DNA of the victims of Le Grêlé. 

Vérove was a police officer and a gendarme, but recently retired within the past few years. Investigators when the crimes initially occurred suspected that the perpetrator was somehow involved with the police force or military due to the types of violence and tactics he used against his victims. It is even reported that he attempted to build trust with some of his victims by introducing himself as a policeman.

Thanks to the due diligence of the cold case investigators on this case over two decades after the initial crimes, the identity of the perpetrator has been identified, and hopefully can bring some justice, or at least relief, to the victims and their families.

French ex-officer's DNA ends 35-year murder hunt. (2021, October 1). BBC News.

We trained AI to recognise footprints, but it won’t replace forensic experts yet 

Researchers at Bournemouth University in the UK have begun investigating the potential for AI in identifying footprints found at crime scenes.

Footprints are a useful piece of evidence found at a crime scene as they can assist the investigators in identifying a suspect. Footprints can tell us about the approximate height, weight, and gait of a suspect, and debatably their sex as well.

In a recent study by the same authors, they found that footprint experts were able to identify the gender of a variety of footprints just over 50% of the time. Conversely, the neural network, a form of AI, they created to identify the gender of footprints was able to correctly identify their gender over 90% of the time.

As one of the most common types of footprint evidence is shoe treads, they created another neural network that could sift through the shoe print database used by police to see how accurately it could identify the make and model of the latent shoe prints. To test their neural network, the authors had casual users of the shoe print database (investigators with the police force), footwear experts, and their neural network analyse randomly selected shoe prints and identify their make and model. They found that the casual users correctly identified it between 22% to 83% of the time, versus the neural network which was correct between 60% and 91% of the time. Despite the successes of the neural network, it still was not as accurate as the footwear experts, who correctly identified nearly 100% of the footwear patterns.

Their studies demonstrated that although the neural networks may need a little more work, they may be a useful tool during investigations to minimize human error, as well as speed up the process of getting an analysis on the prints.

To learn more about this interesting research, check out the article which summarizes the research, as well as provides links to the academic articles related to it! 

Highly Stable, Nondestructive, and Simple Visualization of Latent Blood Fingerprints Based on Covalent Bonding Between the Fluorescent Conjugated Polymer and Proteins in Blood 

Researchers have developed a polymer that binds to blood in a fingerprint to create high contrast images! And even better it doesn’t damage any DNA on the surface. Previously, dyes had been used but they were difficult to develop and didn’t work on all surfaces. This new polymer is absorbed into a cotton pad which is then placed on the prints (on any surface!!) and then peeled off after a few minutes to air dry. Each of the surfaces tested showed high contrast between the blood and the background under ultraviolet light. There was enough detail to distinguish whorls, short ridges, and sweat pores. Researchers then purposely contaminated the prints with mould and dust and they were still distinguishable. In one experiment, even a piece of DNA remained intact after being mixed with the polymer, which is huge for forensics as well. 

Fan, Z., Zhang, C., Chen, J., Ma, R., Lu, Y., Wu, J. W., & Fan, L. J. (2021). Highly Stable, Nondestructive, and Simple Visualization of Latent Blood Fingerprints Based on Covalent Bonding Between the Fluorescent Conjugated Polymer and Proteins in Blood. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 13(13), 15621-15632.

On the relevance of cocaine detection in a fingerprint

Did you know, scientists were able to distinguish between contact and ingestion of cocaine from a fingerprint. Both street cocaine and it’s powder in its primary metabolite (BZE) were used in the study.

Surprisingly, street cocaine was still present in fingerprints after washing hands, but BZE was no longer present. 

They found that the detection of cocaine in fingerprints could show either ingestion of cocaine OR recent contact, but not both at the same time, and, anything over 48 hours after contact could no longer be detected through the fingerprints.

Considering the possible ethical guidelines that would need to followed with the use of cocaine in research, the dose was limited to 2 mg for health and safety reasons!

This discovery can possibly be used as a screening tool in the future!

Lang, M., Costa, C., Bunch, J., Gibson, B., Ismail, M., Palitsin, V., ... & Bailey M. J. (2020, February). On the relevance of cocaine detection in a fingerprint. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-7.

Fingerprint Found on Renaissance Wax Sculpture May Belong to Michaelangelo

Earlier this week at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, employees made a shocking discovery: a fingerprint on a wax statue! They presume that this fingerprint belongs to Michelangelo as it was one of his statues. The fingerprint was found when the museum was closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the statue was being moved to a colder place in the museum. After five months in storage the staff were examining the statue to see how it had survived the heat and they found the tiny fingerprint on the statue’s butt. It has been suggested that the change in humidity and temperature has changed the wax’s composition making the fingerprint visible.

Davis-Marks, I. (2021, July 15). Fingerprint Found on Renaissance Wax Sculpture May Belong to Michaelangelo. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from:

Diagnostics of skin features through 3D skin mapping based on electro-controlled deposition of conducting polymers onto metal-sebum modified surfaces and their possible applications in skin treatment

A team from Singapore has recently developed a device that can assess skin conditions and provide a 3D image in 10 minutes. Unlike other technologies, this portable device only weighs 100 grams and is battery operated, making it easy to transport to scenes if necessary. A 5x5cm gold coated film is pressed to a subject’s skin where the oils of the skin is transferred onto the film, creating an imprint. A bit of fancy science happens, creating a high-resolution 3D map of the skin. 

Researches have used pig skin to map patterns of punctures, lacerations, abrasions, and incisions, using this device to obtain imaging of these wounds. It’s also said that it can be used to lift latent fingerprints and give a 3D image of the characteristics! 

Fu, X., Cheong, Y. H., Ahamed, A., Zhou, C., Robert, C., Krikstolaityte, V., ... & Lisak, G. (2021). Diagnostics of skin features through 3D skin mapping based on electro-controlled deposition of conducting polymers onto metal-sebum modified surfaces and their possible applications in skin treatment. Analytica Chimica Acta, 1142, 84-98.

Body of man found in Alberta septic tank in 1977 identified using genetic genealogy

"Septic Sam" was identified via genetic genealogy near Tofield, Alberta (we talk about forensic genealogy in our second episode if you want a refresher on what it is). Since his murder in 1977, the man has been unidentified. He would have been around 25 years old at the time of his death. There has been quite a bit of research and investigating on his behalf in the past 40 years but until recently most attempts were unsuccessful in identifying him. 

In October 2017, a National DNA program was launched to identify the unidentified by obtaining DNA samples from family members who have missing relatives. In 2019, a partial DNA profile from the unidentified remains was compared to the DNA database unsuccessfully. Luckily, the emerging field of Genetic Genealogy was able to provide some answers. In 2020, biological samples from the remains were sent to a Lab in Texas and a DNA profile was successfully developed and searched against the public DNA databases. 

A "family tree" was able to be created and the Alberta RCMP were able to contact and obtain DNA samples from family members to compare to the recently obtained DNA profile of the unidentified individual. In October 2020, a familial match was confirmed to the individual who has been unidentified since 1977. Alberta RCMP confirmed that the unidentified homicide victim was Gordon Edwin Sanderson from Edmonton. 

If you are interested in this case check out the article for more information.

Texas Rangers stop using hypnosis after Dallas Morning News investigation reveals dubious science

This #forensicfriday is about Texas and their use of forensic hypnosis, relevant to this weeks episode! Texas Rangers are said to be among the most prolific hypnotists in the state and it was only this January, 2021, that Texas has decided to end its use of hypnosis during investigations. They have “developed more advanced interview and interrogation techniques that yield better results”, putting hypnosis in the past. October 2020 was the most recent cases they’ve used hypnosis for! 

Check out the article here.

215 bodies found at a Residential School locations in Canada

At the end of May 2021, the bodies of 215 children were found at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The remains were found via Ground-Penetrating radar (GPR) during a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. As far as anyone knows, these children’s deaths were undocumented and some were as young as three years old. There has been a call by many to excavate and perform GPR at the other residential schools in Canada to see if there are more missing children we can return to their families. Residential schools are very much a stain in Canada’s past and we need to do our part to return the lost children to their families, to apologize for actions in the past, and to do better in the future.

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419. 

Joe Ligon: He’s looking forward to ‘a better everything’

Joe Ligon spent 68 years in Pennsylvania prisons after being convicted of robbery and assault in 1953 when he was 15 years old, becoming the United States longest serving juvenile offender.

In February of 1953, Ligon and four other teenagers drank two bottles of wine together, this being the first time he had drank, and got unruly through the streets of South Philadelphia. They ended up stabbing eight men, killing two of them. Ligon’s lawyers instructed him to plead guilty to the facts, leaving the judge to determine the crimes. He admitted to stabbing one victim who survived but has always contested that he never killed anyone. He and his friends trial only lasted one day, and the courts deemed them “mentally defective with criminal deficiencies”. Ligon was sentenced to life in prison without parole, initially incarcerated at the Pennsylvania institution for Defective Delinquents.

The decision to sentence juveniles for life without possibility of parole was highly questioned based on growing research on adolescent brain development, and in a series of US Supreme court decisions between 2005 and 2016, was ultimately ruled a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court decision in 2016 ruled that all juvenile lifers must get new sentences. Ligon became eligible for parole at this time but did not apply because he wanted to be completely free, not on parole. In November of 2020, his public defender re-litigated his case, and a judge ruled that he could be released from the system. He was officially released in February 202 and is adjusting to normal life after spending 68 years incarcerated.

You can read the article here.

A false facial recognition match sent this innocent black man to jail

This #forensicfriday, we want to share @cnn’s story about the errors of facial recognition, especially with POC. His grandmother called him to let him know police were looking for him. While he’s had his run ins with the law in the past, that life was behind him and this news came as a shock to Nijeer Parks in 2019. When he went to the station to clear things up, he was told his arrest warrant was signed off because of a facial recognition scan that apparently put him at the crime scene. 

You can check out the article here: Nijeer Parks was arrested due to a false facial recognition match | CNN Business 

Alberta RCMP use facial reconstruction to spark tips in missing persons cases

Alberta RCMP use facial reconstruction to spark tips in missing persons cases. They are hoping to identify 3 individuals whose remains were found over the past four decades.

1. A woman who is believed to be 23-40 years old when she died. Her remains were found in Carbon, AB in April 1995. It is suspected that she died between 1980-1985. She was ~5’ to 5’3" tall and had a disease called brucellosis (not commonly found in Canada). She appears to be of mixed ancestry.

2. A male between 25-40 years old who was found in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis. He was found Sept. 2013 and it is estimated that he died between Sept. 2008 and Aug. 2013. He appears to be of Asian ancestry, was 5’3" to 5’7" tall, showed signs of malnutrition and anemia but he had strong muscle development.

3. A female between 16-30 years old. She was found near Hinton, AB in 1985. It is thought that she died in 1975 or earlier. It’s believed that she is indigenous but no other information is known.

If you’re looking for more information about missing persons or have information about these cases visit

Source: Alberta RCMP use facial reconstructions to generate new leads in missing persons cases | CTV News