Identification and Reconstruction of Human Skeletal Remains in Uruguay

Identification and Reconstruction of Human Skeletal Remains in Uruguay

Dr. Horacio E. Solla, PhD

The Forensic Examiner - February, 2016


The article presents an update of a quantitative analysis of the forensic anthropology cases that occurred in Uruguay from 1950 to 2013. The number of forensic anthropology cases has rapidly increased in Uruguay. Over 50 years this number had rose from only one case in 1950 to 91 cases in 2013.This article studies 1391 forensic anthropology cases processed between 1950 and 2013 at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo created in 1992, as a response to the need to address the backlog of cases. The study is divided into two parts: the first representing 225 cases from 1950 to the end of 1991, and the second involving 1166 cases from 1992 to 2013. In each case, the remains were analyzed to determine the identity of the deceased person, sex, stature and age at the time of death. In cases where a positive identification was made, a forensic anthropology analysis was also performed. The purpose of this paper is to describe the place of forensic anthropology in the Uruguayan medico-legal system and to show its effectiveness in identification of human remains.


Forensic anthropology has been one of the fastest growing of all forensic sciences, and its scope has been described by several authors (Iscan, 1988a; Solla, 1991; Iscan and Loth, 1997). Its growth in the US has been attributed to scholars such as Wilton M. Krogman and J. Lawrence Angel (Iscan, 1987; 1988b). T. Dale Stewart (1979) carried out much of the pioneering research and Krogman defined the field (Iscan, 1990a). Other forensic anthropologists (Iscan, 1990b, 1998) have also appreciated importance of research and practical needs globally. The growth of the field has been recorded in many countries. (Stewart, 1979; Jablonsky, 1987; Krogman and Iscan, 1986; Iscan, 1995; Steyn et al., 1995; Rodríguez, 1996, 2004; Iscan and Solla, 2000).

The study of the facial surface has always been of high interest to forensic anthropologists when identifying human skulls (Iscan and Helmer, 1993). Digital superposition is a common method of identification used by forensic anthropologists around the world (Gruner and Reinhard, 1959).

The technique of skull-photo superimposition has been used to assist in the identification of numerous victims and is accepted in courts in a number of countries (Glaister and Brash, 1937; Basauri, 1967a, 1967b; Dorion, 1983; Eckert and Texeira, 1985; Curran, 1986; Dorion, 1983; Endris, 1985; Curran, 1986; Helmer, 1986,1987; Iten, 1987; Soto te al, 1989; Ivanov and Abramov, 1991; Ubeñlaker, 1996; and Solla et al., 2001, 2005, 2010, 2013). The scientific principles of this method were very well described in specialized literature (Colonna et al., 1980; Robert, 1983; Helmer at al., 1989; Cai and Lan, 1982a; 1989, 1993; Seta and Yoshino, 1993; Maples and Browning, 1994).

Adding a computer to this technique greatly improves it, adding a number of advantages and new possibilities (Pesce Delfino et al., 1986, 1993; Nickerson et al., 1991; Bajinoczky and Kiralyfalvi, 1995; Smeets and De Valck, 1996; Ubelaker, 1992; Ubelaker and O´Donnell, 1997; Yoshino et al., 1997; Iscan and Loots, 2000; Jayaprakash et al., 2001; Humpire and Soto, 2013).

In the last 20 years, forensic anthropology has been an active part of Uruguay’s coroner system (Solla, 1994, 2001). The Forensic Institute at Montevideo City assigns medico-legal studies to the Forensic Medicine Department. Autopsies and other types of forensic studies, such as anthropological, are carried out at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City by the resident anthropologist (Schiappapietra, 1995). The number of forensic anthropological cases has increased considerably since the 1992 inclusion of a forensic anthropologist to the medico-legal team. This eventually led to a higher rate of positive identification of skeletal remains (Iscan and Solla, 2000).

Since its establishment in 1992, the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology has given assistance to the coroner and legal authorities in several criminal involving the study of human skeletal remains (Solla, 2002). This concerns skeletonized, decomposed and burned human remains.

Generally, forensic anthropology cases are submitted to forensic anthropologists by coroners and legal authorities. When a positive identification is made based on a forensic anthropologists official report, the coroner signs the death certificate he filed. Therefore, the forensic anthropologist is an official consultant of the Forensic Medicine Department at Montevideo City (Iscan and Solla, 2000).

It is very important to note that before 1992, all recovered skeletal remains were buried with no name since the identifications of human skeletal remains by the pathologist or medical examiner were uncommon. Since the creation of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City in 1992, 190 people have been identified by skull-photo comparison using digital superimposition technique. These positive identifications were later corroborated by dental or DNA studies.

The purpose of this paper is to present an update of the position of forensic anthropology in the Uruguayan medico-legal system and to show successfulness of skull-photograph comparison techniques are when used to identify human remains.


Two periods were analyzed, with the assessed period arbitrarily divided into two sections. The first section was before the establishment of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City, (this is since 1950 to 1991 include) and the second one from 1992 to 2013 where the Laboratory of forensic anthropology had an active role in the study and identification of human remains. The periods from studies were from 1950 to 1992 and from 1992 to the end of 2013. The year 1992 was considered a boundary line between these two periods.

In 1992 the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City established. Two hundred and twenty five forensic anthropology cases were found in the Montevideo Judicial Morgue’s files for the first period of analysis and 1,166 during the second period. The human remains came from all over the country, including Montevideo City. All cases were assessed for the estimation of age at death, sex, and geographic location or where the remains were found. Condition of the remnants regarding decomposition and whether or not a positive identification was made was also noted. Most of the human remains were found in woods, fields, parks, by rivers and lakes. Other remains were others recovered from locations like burned cars, septic tanks, highways, construction sites and abandoned houses. Those recovering the remains were typically ICE or civilians. These positive identifications were made from the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City using skull-photo comparison techniques.

According to skull-photo superimposition techniques, two photographs showing frontal and lateral views are required for an accurate identification by the technique. Photographs were the placed under the video camera and illuminated by white fluorescent lamps. The image was adjusted on the computer monitor, and it was digitized by the video mixer unit and stored in the computer as a JPG file using a capture card device. Then, using a computer and Adobe Photoshop software, some key facial anatomical landmarks were traced (Comas, 1976). Moreover, eight examining lines introduced by Cai and Lan (1982a) were considered.

Respecting all of these landmarks and lines, several comparisons lines, and other comparisons, are captured using an application of the digital mixer outside of Adobe Photoshop software. The skull is illuminated by fluorescent lamps and placed under the video camera. It is then manipulated by a servo motor until its position is seized in that of the individual in the photograph. After the skull has been adjusted in the optimal position, a photograph is captured and adjusted to fit as closely possible to that of the individual on the photograph. Afterwards, the image of the skull is digitized using the digital video mixer unit and then stored as JPG file in the computer. Then, both images are stored in the computer (skull and photo) and superimposed using the Adobe Photoshop software for a more detailed comparison.

This technique permits the desired combinations of skull-photo appraisal, including removal of soft tissue to view the underlying skeletal structures such the auditory canal, zigomatics, jawbones, nasal root, dentition, chin, skull contours and so on. The entire process may be the recorded by the computer DVD unit and good quality photographs can be made by a computer printer to be attached to a forensic report.


From the first period of analysis (1950-1991), before the creation of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City, the number of forensic anthropology cases increased from 1 in 1950 to 20 in 1991. This averaged 5.4 cases per year. About 85% of the cases from this period came from Montevideo Department. This is the most populated of the 19 Departments in Uruguay, having almost 2 million people within its scope and only per anum value, 15% were from the rest of the country (I.N.E., 2013). No techniques of identification were used, so no positive identifications were made for this period. In general, the majority of the forensic anthropology cases from this period did not have enough relevant anthropological data to be further analyzed, especially the cases from the 1950s and 1960s.

Forensic anthropology cases increased in the second period from 14 in 1992 to 91 cases in 2013. The average number of cases per year increased radically, more accurately with an average of 56, 6 cases per year against an average of 5, 4 for the first period. This difference can be seen at the figure 1. for both periods (1950-1991; 1992-2013). More than a half (58.9%) of the forensic anthropology cases came from Montevideo Department and the remaining Departments represented 41.1%. In 17% (N=190) of the cases, people were identified using skull-photo comparison techniques assisted by a computer.


The only accurate indicator of assessing a specific method’s contribution of the field is to quantify its practical application. Before 1991, forensic anthropological studies were not given serious consideration in Uruguay. Human remains, when discovered, were analyzed by ignorant coroners with little or no training in anthropology. Most considerations were reduced to the determination of sex and possible cause of death. Generally, remains could not be positively identified, so they were buried as unknown. As a solution to this problem, the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory was created at the Morgue Judicial of Montevideo City in 1992.

Ever since its establishment as a section of the Morgue Judicial, the number of anthropological cases analyzed has been increasing. Thus, an upward trend is best illustrated by a modest number of 20 cases in 1992 that had gone up in a moment reaching 91 case in 2013 (figure 2). Therefore, forensic anthropology has become an integral part of the medico–legal disciplines and its investigative branch all around the world. The scientific contributions of forensic anthropology to identifying human remains and solving crime have been written up in literature by many scientists. It has been shown that participation of a trained forensic anthropologist can contribute considerably to the speedy identification of unknown cases and resolution of the crime.

This paper shows that in Uruguay the number of cases receiving expert evaluation has risen yearly over the last 20 years. This is likely due to the establishment of a forensic anthropology laboratory in the medical examiner’s complex. Without doubt, this increase in case studies can be attributed to the familiarity of the service this new field can offer to law enforcement agencies and coroners. The location of the laboratory at the Morgue Judicial of Montevideo gave an opportunity to medico-legal officers to have an easy access to this service. The rate of positive identification has also improved considerably and comparable to other statistics in the USA (Marks, 1995).

According to the judicial forensic anthropology´s files found at the Morgue of Montevideo City there were 1391 forensic anthropology cases from 1950 to 2013. The oldest forensic anthropology file was recorded in 1950. This period is divided into two parts. The first part has 225 cases and ran from 1950 to 1991. The second part, which includes 1166 cases, ran from 1992 to 2013 and includes all forensic anthropology files recorded since the forensic anthropology Services Department was established in 1992. In the majority of cases the remains were found by police or civilians in forests, fields, parks, lakes, or rivers. Some were found in burned cars, on highways, or in abandoned houses.

All of the forensic anthropology cases were analyzed to determine the number or people, age at time of death, sex, location where the remains were found, stage of decomposition of the remains (fresh, advanced decomposed, burned, or skeletonized), and if a positive identification was made. Skull-photo digital superposition was used for identification purposes with available equipment at the Morgue Judicial of Montevideo City. Together with other methods like DNA or dental studies, the comparisons by digital superposition assisted by computers were the most useful method used in identifying human remains in Uruguay from the second course of time analyzed (1992-2013). This included a total of 188 cases which were solved and identified using skull-photo comparisons by digital superposition assisted by computers.

The number of people identified with skull-photo comparison techniques can be easily compared to that provided by others (Bass and Driscoll, 1983; Marks, 1995). This comparison of results confirms that the establishment of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo has vastly enhanced the scientific community’s ability to identify human skeletal remains in Uruguay.

However, the rate of identification in Uruguay depends on a number of problems. First, law enforcement agencies may not be knowledgeable about what pieces of data are relevant to help obtain a positive identification. Second, positive identification may be very difficult when no missing people have been reported. Factors of individualization are the process whereby a set of unique skeletal characteristics is matched with those of a missing person (Solla, 1991). Therefore, a positive identification could not be established when there are no comparative records. Third, dental records are particularly difficult to obtain in Uruguay as well as many other countries in Latin America. This is because dental health is poor and minimally maintained by most people due to the cost.

Forensic anthropological work has made a significant positive contribution to the medico–legal system in the last 20 years in Uruguay. The number of cases identified increased to a level obtained in other more technologically advanced countries (Bass and Driscoll, 1983; Marks, 1995).


Today, forensic anthropology has been integrated into forensic teams in the majority of countries around the world. It is also working its way into medico-legal systems around the world. Scientific literature has described numerous times in which forensic anthropology has solved crimes or identified skeletal remains. Clearly, it is important to have a well-trained forensic anthropologist available when human skeletal remains are found and positive identification must be made. The number of cases forensic anthropology has aided in solving has increased in Uruguay over the last 20 years, from 14 cases in 1992 to 91 by 2013. Hopefully, in future cases, there will be an even higher percentage of positive identifications.

All anthropological forensic investigations were commencing with initial observations about the sex, age, race and stature, time since death and cause of death. Skull-photo comparison was made by the digital superimposition using computer. It showed sufficient consistency between the skulls and the facial photographs submitted for comparison. But the success in identification of human remains using skull-photo comparisons depends upon the quality of the submitted photograph as well as correct positioning of the skull and mandible. Although the remains were identified by skull-photo superimposition, results of another technique were used as evidences and incorporated in the final report, such as dental or DNA studies. The latter were consequently found to be in agreement with the identification based on skull-photo comparison.

Forensic anthropological contributions to the Uruguayan medico-legal system have increased in the last 20 years. The number of cases in which positive identifications have been reached is similar to those of the US and European countries. It should be noted that according to actual tendencies, forensic anthropology cases are increasing. Among the reasons that explain this increase are the following:

  • The creation of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City in 1992. This made it easier for medical examiners and coroners to contact the resident forensic anthropologist when needed.
  • The creation of a full-time Resident Forensic Anthropologist position at the Laboratory in 1992.
  • The ability to have a trained forensic anthropologist working in a forensic team with medical examiners, coroners, dentists and radiologists.
  • A better knowledge of the scope of this modern branch of forensic science by the medico-legal system as a whole.
  • The high percentage of positive identifications carried out by the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory from the period 1992-2013.

In conclusion, this study shows how positive identifications can be made using traditional osteological analysis and skull-photo comparison by the digital superimposition assisted by computer.


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About the Author

Dr. Horacio E. Solla, PhD, received his graduate degree in Anthropological Sciences in 1991 from the University of the Republic, Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, Uruguay. He also holds many postgraduate degree courses in

Forensic Anthropology; the last one in 2003, dictated by Dr. Douglas H. Ubelaker of the Smithsonian Institution. He received a Certificate of Inclusion in 2000 for the Outstanding Scholars of the 21st Century (First Edition) in Honor of an Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Forensic Anthropology in Uruguay as Founder of Forensic Anthropology.

Dr. Solla has a Master’s Degree in Human Sciences (MA) from the University of the Republic, Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, Uruguay. He received his Doctorate Degree of Merit from the International Biographical Institute at Cambridge, England (2001) and a Doctorate Degree of Sciences (DS) from the International Atlantic University, with a Major in Anthropology (2012).

Dr. Solla has published more than sixty scientific papers along with three books. He is a member of the Uruguayan Society of the History of Medicine, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute® and the Spanish College of Forensic Experts. He was Curator at the National Museum of Anthropology (1990-1992), Assistant of Physical Anthropology at the University of the Republic, Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, Uruguay (1989-1995) and Anthropologist at the National Institute of Criminology (1992-1995).

Presently, he has a full time position as Forensic Anthropologist at the Judicial Morgue of Montevideo City (Supreme Court of Justice) where he has solved more than 1300 forensic anthropology cases and has identified more than two hundred missing persons by the study of their skeletal remains. He is teaching Forensic Anthropology at the Catholic University of Montevideo, Uruguay and is an expert consultant from Peru and Mexico where he also has worked as an advisory Forensic Anthropologist in several important private cases.

Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.