The Breton Murders: Bone Identification and Taphonomy in 21st-Century Spain

8th of October 2011: According to their father José, whom had recently separated from their mother Ruth Ortiz, two-year-old José and his sister Ruth Bretón Ortiz (6) were enjoying a fun afternoon in a park in Cordoba (Spain), after spending the day at their father’s family country house, when they went missing; he had been distracted when the disappearance took place, he argued.

Bretón quickly phoned the authorities to alert them of the children’s disappearance and so the search began for the two missing children. The police, however, were confused as to why Bretón had phoned them from the country house and not the park. Additionally, CCTV images obtained a few days later showed that he had indeed been at the park, but on his own; there was no evidence of the children ever having been there. Where were José and Ruth? Had they been kidnapped? Or could their father have something to do with their disappearance?

The Police soon searched Bretón family’s countryside property where the children had spent most of the weekend. They were surprised to find the remains of a large campfire (Fig. 1), which, according to Bretón, he had used to burn photographs of his wife and objects that reminded him of his now-broken marriage. The hearth, however, also seemed to contain numerous bone remains. 

Breton 1
Fig. 1 – Hearth found at Bretón family’s countryside residence (left) and the bones found within it (right)
Image source: El Mundo

On the 10th of October the hearth’s bone remains were collected over a nine-hour period by a member of the Violent Crimes Group of Seville’s Scientific Police, an inspector from Cordoba’s Scientific Police and a forensic anthropologist from the National Police’s Forensic Anthropology Central Unit. More than 120 bone fragments (including teeth) were recovered from the hearth, together with bits of burnt clothes, and a button.  

Josefina Lamas (Fig. 2), the aforementioned forensic anthropologist, carried out the identification of the bones and concluded that “the studied remains are all animal in nature; sub-adult in age and of different sizes (rodents, small carnivores, small herbivores, omnivores)”. Additionally, she also concluded that “the bones were exposed to high temperatures (in excess of 800 degrees Celsius), which triggered different degrees of carbonisation. The burning was aided, amongst other things, by the presence of olive tree wood”.

Finally, she concluded her report by stating: “No human body nor human remains were cremated in this fireplace”.  

Fig. 2- Josefina Lamas, the forensic anthropologist in charge of the bone identification
Image source: El Confidencial

10 months later, however, Lamas’ conclusions were called into question when a second and third analyses of the bones were undertaken by Francisco Etxebarría, sub-director of the Basque Criminology Institute, and José María Bermúdez de Castro, director of the Spanish National Research Centre for Human Evolution (CENIEH) and co-director of the excavations at the Palaeolithic site of Atapuerca.

The way Etxebarría structured his study of the bones involved very similar questions/procedures as would the zooarchaeological analysis of, for example, the Palaeolithic faunal assemblage I studied for my PhD, with the exception of [1] as I only focussed on the identification and analysis of non-human, animal remains.

[1] Are these human remains?

The bodily structure (i.e. anatomy) of all of species on Earth has specific characteristics within it that are the result of their evolution and adaptation to the physical environments and circumstances in which the individuals live(d).

Anatomy is also shaped by the different body parts’ functionality (for feeding, locomotion, protection) (Reitz and Wing 1999: Chapter 3). This is clearly the case, for example, with mammalian teeth. Two of mammals’ characteristics are their constant high body temperature and the feeding of their young with maternal milk. Both of these activities require great energetic expenditure meaning that mammals need to obtain their food, process it and digest it in the most efficient way possible to gain the most energy possible from it. Because of this mammalian teeth have become highly specialized to each of its species lifestyles and have morphologically adapted as a result (Myers et al. 2013).

The teeth found in the hearth. Image source: El Mundo
Fig. 3 – The teeth found in the hearth.
Image source: El Mundo

For example, mammals of the Order Insectivora/Eulipotyphla (e.g. hedgehogs, shrews) eat a number of small invertebrates so their incisors are shaped to act as forceps in order to most effectively catch their prey. Carnivora, on the other hand, have very small incisors, especially when compared to the rest of their dentition, and these have very pointy crowns. They are set close together meaning they can be used as a comb by dogs and their relatives when grooming their protective layer of fur. And although carnivores have small incisors, they also have some ‘impressive’ teeth too. Their blade-like carnassials (upper fourth premolars and lower first molars) ‘rub’ against each other to cut through both meat and skin, perfect for breaking up their meaty prey (Hillson 2005: Chapter 1).

These dental differences allow zooarchaeologists to easily identify species based on tooth morphology alone. Teeth were found in the hearth (Fig. 3) and, based on their morphology, could be identified as having pertained to a human. Josefina Lamas’ conclusion that “no human body nor human remains were cremated in this fireplace” is therefore a puzzling and erroneous conclusion with serious legal consequences.

[2] What is the minimum number of individuals represented in the sample?

A large number of variables have the potential to affect and ultimately destroy bones meaning that excavated assemblages may not be a true reflection of what was initially deposited at a site. Because of this, scholars who study bone assemblages tend to estimate the number of individuals (whether human or animal) that were deposited at a site.

In order to do so you must “separate the most abundant element of the species found into right and left components and use the greater number as a unit of calculation” (White 1953: 397). In other words, if your assemblage contains 10 right cat femora and 2 left dog humeri you’ll be able to estimate that you have a minimum number of 10 cats and 2 dogs because cats only have 1 right femur and dogs only have 1 left humerus.

Based on their identification and analysis of the bones, Etxebarría and Bermúdez de Castro estimated that the minimum number of individuals at the hearth found at Bretón’s family country house was 2 as three human astragali (talus bone) were identified: two identical in size, pertaining to an individual approximately 6 years old, and a left astragalus, smaller in size (21 mm), pertaining to a younger individual. Why then did the first report conclude that no human remains were cremated at the site?

[3] Can the sex or age of the individual(s) be determined from the remains?

Age and sex of individuals can potentially be determined depending on the elements recovered and their state of preservation. Teeth, both deciduous (‘milk’) and permanent, are particularly useful when it comes to ageing individuals because “the sequence and timing of the eruption of deciduous and permanent teeth provides a developmental scale of surprising stability, apparently remaining relatively unaffected by the growing environment of the individual animal” (O’Connor  2006: 1).

In this particular case, José and his sister Ruth were young children, 2 and 6 years old respectively. As Fig. 4 shows, the latest a human milk tooth erupts is aged 2 and the earliest they are shed is between 6 and 7 years of age (the upper central incisor) meaning that both children would have had all or most of their milk teeth. Ruth, because she was 6, may have already had a permanent upper and lower first molars and a lower central incisor as these erupt between 6 and 7 years of age (Fig. 5). The analysis of the teeth carried out by Etxebarría, the sub-director of the Basque Criminology Institute, noted the presence of recently-erupted human molars as well as several incisor fragments pertaining to a young human individual. Why then did Lamas conclude that only rodents, small carnivores and herbivores, and omnivores were found? How could she fail to notice the human teeth, clearly so different to those of rodents and other animals?

Fig. 4 – Primary teeth eruption chart. Image source: Mouth Healthy
Fig. 5 – Permanent teeth eruption chart. Image source: Mouth Healthy

[4] At what temperature were the bodies burnt at?

Burning experiments carried out by Shipman and colleagues in 1984 determined that, whereas bone and teeth surface colour alone cannot be used to determine the exact temperature at which these were burnt, the changes in colour as well as their microscopic morphology can be divided into five stages, each representing a temperature range. In Stage 1, involving temperatures below 285º C, bone remains netural white or turns pale yellow or very pale brown. In Stage 2, between 285º C and 524º C, bone commonly turns reddish brown, very dark grey-brown, neutral dark grey, and reddish-yellow. During Stage 3, between 525º C and 644º C, bone goes neutral black (carbonisation) with medium blue and some reddish-yellow emerging. During Stage 4, between 645º C and 939º C, a neutral white colouration predominates (calcination), with some light blue-grey and light grey shades also emerging. Finally, in Stage 5, with tempreatures above 939º C bones turns neutral white with some grey and reddish-yellow (Shipman et al. 1984: 312-313). Using this and other information from similar studies, Etxebarría and Bermúdez de Castro observed that some of the bones had been carbonized (black) whereas others were calcined (white/grey) meaning these were exposed to temperatures ranging between 640 and 800º C or even higher.

This was the only time Etxebarría and Bermúdez de Castro’s conclusions coincided with those of Lamas’, who noted “the bones were exposed to high temperatures (in excess of 800 degrees Celsius)”. The question remains: why did Josefina Lamas misidentify the bones and teeth? How could she confuse them with those of rodents or herbivores?

The report by Etxebarría and Bermúdez de Castro detailing all the above information was later used in the trial against José Bretón. Had it not been for their re-analysis of the remains, he could have gotten away with murder; in July 2013, however, Bretón was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of his two children.

References and Further Reading:

(£) denotes a paywall/book

One thought on “The Breton Murders: Bone Identification and Taphonomy in 21st-Century Spain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s