The effects of burning on isotope ratio values in modern bone: Importance of experimental design for forensic applications

Julianne J. Sarancha, Jelmer W. Eerkens, Christopher J. Hopkins, David Gonçalves, Eugénia Cunha, Inês Oliveira-Santos, Ana Vassalo, Gwyneth W. Gordon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examined preservation of isotope ratio values by comparing isotope composition of bones before and after burning. We analyzed common geoprofiling isotope systems (δ 13C, δ 15N, δ 18O, and 87Sr/86Sr) and lesser studied systems (δ 34S and δ 88/86Sr) to evaluate if inferences about diet and residence history were altered by the burning process. We used two burn methods: one to simulate previous academic studies using a muffle furnace and one to more closely resemble a house fire or body disposal attempt using open flame. To mimic previous burn studies, ribs and femora from four dry modern human skeletons were heated in a muffle furnace. To resemble a forensic burn situation, fleshed pig ribs from a single geographic location were burned on an open fire both with and without use of a diesel accelerant. Isotope ratios from bone collagen, carbonate, phosphate, and strontium were analyzed. Fleshed pig samples burned in an open fire maintained unaltered isotope ratio values. Dry human samples burned in a muffle furnace maintained unaltered isotope ratio values in most isotope systems, except for δ 18O values in carbonate and phosphate, which showed a depletion of 18O at higher temperatures. This research suggests that the isotope composition of fleshed burned bone retains the geoprofiling inferences of unburned bone, at least within the parameters of the open fire burn used in this study. However, oxygen isotopes of carbonate and phosphate from dry bone burned in a muffle furnace do not retain the geoprofiling inferences. This research demonstrates the need for research using an experimental design relevant to a specific burn situation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number111370
JournalForensic Science International
StatePublished - Aug 2022


  • Burned bones
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Stable isotope analysis
  • Unidentified remains

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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