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Qualitative and Quantitative Diagnosis of Lethal Cranial Neural Tube Defects from the Fetal and Neonatal Human Skeleton, with a Case Study Involving Taphonomically Altered Remains

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Cranial neural tube defect, or anencephaly, is the absence of normal brain development because of severe developmental defect in the fetus. While the current incidence of human anencephaly ranges between 1 to 5 per 1000 births, and was higher prior to folic acid supplementation, there is no discussion of anencephaly diagnosis in the forensic literature and only one published example from the archeological record. This article presents both qualitative observations of abnormal cranial elements and an osteometric method to quantitatively determine anencephaly from forensic recovery contexts where taphonomic variables may otherwise mask diagnostic characteristics. Evidence is presented for only the second case of anencephaly diagnosed from a burial context, and the first not involving soft tissue mummification. The initial recognition and accurate prediction of anencephaly is a significant contribution to investigators recovering found human fetal remains.
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Keywords: anencephaly; fetal abandonment; fetal skeleton; forensic anthropology; forensic science; neonatal skeleton; neural tube defects

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Director Repatriation Osteology Lab, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, PO Box 37012, MRC 138 Washington, DC 20013-7012.

Publication date: 2010-07-01

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