The circles of life: age at death estimation in burnt teeth through tooth cementum annulations

Abstract

Age at death estimation in burnt human remains is problematic due to the severe heat-induced modifications that may affect the skeleton after a burning event. The objective of this paper was to assess if cementochronology, which focuses on the cementum incremental lines, is a reliable method of age estimation in burnt remains. Besides the classical approach based on the counting of incremental lines, another approach based on the extrapolation of incremental lines taking into account the cement layer thickness and the incremental line thickness was investigated. A comparison of the performance of the two techniques was carried out on a sample of 60 identified monoradicular teeth that were recently extracted at dentist offices and then experimentally burnt at two maximum temperatures (400 and 900 °C). Micrographs of cross-sections of the roots were taken via an optical microscope with magnification of ×100, ×200 and ×400. Incremental line counting and measurements were carried out with the ImageJ software. Age estimation based on incremental line counting in burnt teeth had no significant correlation with chronological age (p = 0.244 to 0.914) and led to large absolute mean errors (19 to 21 years). In contrast, age estimation based on the extrapolation approach showed a significant correlation with known age (p = 0.449 to 0.484). In addition, the mean absolute error of the latter was much smaller (10 to 14 years). The reason behind this discrepancy is the heat-induced dimensional changes of incremental lines that affect their visibility and individualization thus complicating line counting. Our results indicated that incremental lines extrapolation is successful at solving this problem and that the resulting age estimation is much more reliable.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank all the donor and dentists who collaborated in this research. A special thanks goes to Cláudia Brites and the Hard Tissues Laboratory of the Dentistry Department of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra. Also, to Maria Teresa Ferreira, for taking her time in revising the text and to Benoit Bertrand for giving valuable advice for this research. David Gonçalves is funded through a postdoctoral research grants (SFRH/BPD/84268/2012) from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

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Correspondence to Inês Oliveira-Santos.

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Oliveira-Santos, I., Gouveia, M., Cunha, E. et al. The circles of life: age at death estimation in burnt teeth through tooth cementum annulations. Int J Legal Med 131, 527–536 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00414-016-1432-2

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Keywords

  • Forensic anthropology
  • Cementochronology
  • Heat-induced changes
  • Incremental lines
  • Dental age estimation