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Osteological Collections of the National Museum in Brazil: Challenges and New Perspectives for a Historical Collection

Independent Researcher, Rio de Janeiro 21941-395, Brazil
Graduate Program in Antrhopology (PPGA) and Graduate Program in Health, Environment and Society (PPGSAS), Universidade Federal do Pará, Belém 66075-110, Brazil
Center of Multisciplinary Advanced Studies (CEAM), Universidade de Brasília, Brasilia 70910-900, Brazil
Research Center for Anthropology and Health (CIAS), Universidade de Coimbra, 3000-370 Coimbra, Portugal
Department of Anthropology, National Museum, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro 20940-040, Brazil
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Forensic Sci. 2022, 2(2), 287-301;
Submission received: 7 February 2022 / Revised: 17 March 2022 / Accepted: 19 March 2022 / Published: 22 March 2022


The National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (NM-UFRJ), Brazil, suffered a serious fire in 2018, resulting in the loss or severe damage of many collections. The human osteological collection, also affected, was one of the largest and oldest in the country, holding over two thousand entries from prehistoric to historic sites, including some international donations. The oldest remains were those of “Luzia”, dating to 11.5 thousand years. While part of the collection was recovered from the debris, the bones were mostly warped and damaged by the fire, making the possibility of identification uncertain. Therefore, this collection is now inadequate for regular forensic and bioarchaeological studies. Considering the need for the construction of a new human osteological collection, especially with forensic perspectives, we conducted a survey of Brazilian national and local (capitals of the Southeast region) legislation, regarding donation and institutionalization of human remains for scientific collections and ossuaries, considering the potential ethics and logistics aspects. Results suggest that legislation generally treats human remains studies and collections as an issue of lesser importance Thus, private donations may become the simplest way to receive human remains, even though they are generally age biased. We conclude that it is necessary to broaden legal and ethical discussions in order to build contemporary human bone collections with proper scientific potential for the needs of society.

1. Introduction

“Assim, ainda prosseguimos, principalmente agora ante o desastre, porque mais do que nunca é preciso prosseguir” (So, we are still going on, especially now in the face of disaster, because more than ever we must to go on) [1].
Human osteological collections have been the basis for countless bioanthropological studies, supporting the development of techniques and investigations in forensic sciences, archeology, and paleopathology among other fields for many decades [2]. Following the development of anthropological studies throughout the 19th century, many institutions, such as the National Museum (NM), in Brazil, promoted the development and growth of these collections, which allowed for the investigation of human variability. The NM collection developed based on perspectives and concepts in force at the time. Preserving important elements from different periods of Brazilian territory, the collection included skeletal remains recovered from indigenous and post-colonial cemeteries [3,4].
Since the beginning of the collection of human remains, important changes have occurred worldwide in the social, ethical and legal contexts that permeate the construction, maintenance, organization and growth of human osteological collections, whether they are conceived as heritage, research object or even as an element of teaching or scientific dissemination.
In 2018, a huge fire affected the entire headquarters of the National Museum (NM), linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, severely impacting the 200-year collection of human osteology of the Biological Anthropology Sector of the Anthropology Department. More than 3000 sets of skeletal remains from prehistory to the mid-20th century were burnt, broken, and mixed by the fire and its consequences. Concerning the individuals and different human groups represented in this collection, NM Biological Anthropology sector will have the responsibility to identify the affected skeletal remains and provide ethical solutions for those who cannot be identified [1]. In addition to the commitment to the remnants affected by the fire, the need for the constitution of a new collection must be considered, especially with regard to the scientific and didactic demands of the institution.
(Re)building a collection for research and teaching at the museum, with a specific focus on developing a modern human osteological collection reflecting the Brazilian people, began by carrying out a survey of Brazilian legislation relevant to the donation and collection of human remains to research institutions, at the federal level and in selected capitals of the Southeast region. This survey demonstrated a certain level of variability in municipal legislation related to the autonomy of these entities, despite a common legislative framework at the federal level.
Considering the challenges posed by the destruction of the NM collections, in this article we address issues associated with the composition of a human osteological collection in the 21st century, based on the existing literature and associated national regulations, in the expectation that such a contribution may help those interested in investigations in the fields of biological anthropology and forensic sciences. We also highlight that the survey might be useful not only to local institutions, but also for researchers around the world experiencing a similar situation, who can use it as a starting point to verify the operation of such norms locally. The ethical reflections addressed on the work are not restricted to any countries.

2. The Human Osteological Collection of the National Museum

The National Museum (NM) is the oldest research institution in Brazil, being an institution dedicated to natural and anthropological sciences, in dialogue and interaction with other areas of knowledge and applied sciences [5]. In this sense, the current Department of Anthropology of the NM reflects diverse trajectories and ideas, modeled as the four fields of the anthropological sciences (Biological Anthropology, Archeology, Ethnology and Linguistics). Until the mid-20th century, the ethnological and archaeological collections, as well as the human remains, were considered a single collection from an administrative point of view, in relation to the processing and numbering of the items [4,6].
The collection of human remains of the NM was developed starting in the 19th century and continuing throughout the 20th century. The separation of the collection by divisions and later by sectors organized the human remains based on criteria established at the time under the theme of material culture. Thus, the skeletal remains, regardless of their origin and context (and other remains not associated with pre-historic or contemporary indigenous populations), comprised the collection of physical anthropology (predominantly osteological), under the control of the then Division of Physical Anthropology, while mummified human remains and artifacts made from human remains were integrated into the Ethnology or Archeology collections, according to what was known about their origins and collection context.
The Human Osteological Collection of the current Biological Anthropology Sector of the Anthropology Department of the NM thus refers to several skeletal series collected during fieldwork and from donations of skeletonized remains from different contexts, such as archaeological research, institutional exchanges, cemetery collections, among many others, along several decades. This allowed the construction of different subcollections which exemplify distinct moments and contexts of anthropological practices. A good example is the series of skulls and skeletal elements traditionally valued in classical typological studies developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Likewise, the different archaeological series allow the understanding of the development of this field in the institution and in the country, with a special focus on discussions on the population of the Brazilian territory and on the study of coastal groups. Cemetery series focused on bioanthropological practices and studies, for instance in forensic research, were also part of the collection, such as the series of skulls collected in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the series of skeletons collected in the in the city of Bezerros, located in the state of Pernambuco, both added in the mid-20th century, according to the collection record book [4].
Such diversity of origins, forms of collection, and research directions were the object, from the second decade of the 21st century onwards, of a major effort of conceptual restructuring, seeking to repair historical errors, deconstruct colonialist practices, and adapt the collection to broad ethical principles. This is especially true as related to the research and exhibition of human remains in exhibits such as, “Tamaki Makau-Rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects,” and “Vermillion Accord on Human Remains” [7,8,9]. Unfortunately, this process was drastically interrupted by the fire that occurred in 2018, affecting the entire length of the imperial palace, headquarters of the NM [10]. In this space was situated the museum’s permanent exhibition, research laboratories, classrooms and technical reserves from different scientific fields of the institution, including biological, geological, paleontological and anthropological collections, such as the osteological collection of the Biological Anthropology sector, which occupied a total of 14 mobile shelving units (Figure 1).
Despite the technically adequate protection, the high temperatures and the collapse of walls and upper floors directly affected the human remains in the collection, not only damaging them physically but also compromising the identification of their registration numbers. Although the loss is not yet fully calculated, mainly due to the different levels of impairment caused by the temperature variation within the palace spaces, it is estimated that a significant part of the collection is highly compromised. This makes future research highly unlikely. Therefore, the current perspective of specialists in the area is that this collection should have a purpose other than archeological and forensic studies, raising the need not only for a new osteological collection to be added to the recovered pieces, but also for the materials and equipment needed to study them. Related to this is the specific need for forensic materials from the Brazilian context. Although it is true that in the last decade the state of the discipline in the country has achieved some improvements [11,12], there is still an absence of studies aimed at developing or adapting biological profile techniques to the national scenario.

3. Brazilian Legislation and the Constitution of Human Osteological Collections: A Few Questions

3.1. Why Assemble a Human Osteological Collection?

When human remains are in an advanced state of decomposition, with no possibility of recognition by physiognomic characteristics or fingerprint techniques, forensic anthropologists carry out the task of identification [12,13]. In this case, the professional works by interpreting osteological characteristics and changes, such as geographic ancestry, sex, age, trauma, pathologies, and other individualizing traits that can help in the identification process [14]. Some other elements such as the estimation of time since death and its cause can also be identified during osteological analyses, for instance by recognizing potentially fatal perimortem injuries with no evidence of bone reaction [15,16].
The forensic anthropologist contributes to the identification of the individual and seeks to help establish the cause of death, interpreting those circumstances that caused these remains to be as they were found, making inferences based on bone analysis and context [13]. The information extracted from osteological analyses allows the formation of an osteobiographical profile; this data is then compared with antemortem data from possible victims, such as radiological exams, dental records, family information, among others, in the search for the person’s civil identification [12].
For this evaluation to be carried out satisfactorily, it is necessary to employ methods that can provide this information with precision and accuracy [17,18,19], especially due to the social and legal implications involving a forensic case [17]. The general parameters used to make these inferences in each country are obtained through the analysis of documented osteological collections [17,19,20,21].
It is worth noting, however, that although they may constitute a valuable tool for anthropological studies, data obtained from a given collection cannot be regarded as universal [22,23]. Several factors contribute to the morphology of bones, in a way that large variations between populations can be observed. Therefore, previously established methodologies may not be valid for application to different groups, needing adjustments to adapt them to local parameters [16,18,24,25,26]. This implies a broad study of skeletal remains, aiming at adapting formulas to specific population variants [16,20], as well as the study of bones in their most varied forms and states of conservation [14]. In addition to the need to adequately document variation among large-scale populations, local variations within the same group also occur and need to be described. These variations reflect several factors linked to skeletal development such as individual health, nutrition, genetics, environmental factors, in addition to external factors such as immigration [26], influencing in characteristics such as physical development, body proportions and timing of bone maturation [16].
Due to secular change, another element to consider is the antiquity of the studied remains. Over time, factors such as migration, admixture, and secular trends can modify the expected morphology of individuals. Techniques that have previously been shown to be effective, and have been widely studied, may present higher error rates over the years. Such results indicate the need for continuous studies with samples of individuals which are as recent as possible [17] so that they reflect the current morphological characteristics of the population, making constant adaptations to the samples and methodologies needed [27].
Another relevant concern in forensic casework is related to bone preservation. Taphonomic processes influence the quantity and quality of the osteological material collected; thus, certain morphological elements may not be present, which would have a direct impact on the subsequent laboratorial analysis [22,27]. Studies with collections can help to understand how these processes can affect bones in the different contexts in which they can be found, facilitating the distinction between marks caused by taphonomic processes and pathological conditions. In addition, collections are vital in allowing the development of other methodologies using different body parts for the estimations, increasing the number of positive identifications in cases of partial recoveries [27].
Information obtained through analysis of identified collections has been also used in the improvement of facial recognition techniques [28], in the study of living individuals [24], applications in archeology, helping to reconstruct the lifestyle of the societies studied [29], studies of pathologies, seeking to improve the diagnosis of diseases based on the documentation of marks left on bones [22,24] and known causes of death [24].

3.2. Brazilian Legislation

In Brazil, as it happens in other countries, documented osteological collections originate mostly from local cemeteries that carry out periodic exhumations in order to make space for new burials, avoiding overcrowding [22,30,31]. These spaces are provided for a specified time period. At the end of the contract, the bones are removed to one of several possible destinations, varying in accordance with local legislation. Other possible methods for the acquisition of osteological materials are donations of unclaimed bodies after death (“John Does”), individuals forwarded from scientific studies (dissection, autopsies, among others), and voluntary donations from the individuals themselves while alive, or from their families after their death [2].
In Brazil, there is a federation model as a form of government, where the federal sphere has national sovereignty, and municipalities have autonomy to legislate on matters of local interest, including the organization of cemeteries and, consequently, legislation regarding disposition of the remains [32]. As they are municipal norms, local variations may occur. However, municipalities must also follow constitutional guidelines, in practice leaving little room for variability.
With regard to the federal sphere, there are two laws that allow the donation of human remains. Article 14 of the Brazilian Civil Code, law 10406 [33], addresses voluntary donations. In this case, the process can be initiated by the individual or by their family members after their death. This situation already occurs with some frequency across the nation, with several universities having established programs for the procedure [34,35,36,37,38,39,40]. In most cases, the remains are from people who have recently died (still with soft tissues), forwarded from a Legal Medical Institute, more commonly for use in anatomical studies. However, some of these programs also accept bone donation from individuals forwarded from cemeteries, after the exhumation process.
Law 8501 [41], on the other hand, deals with the disposition of remains without identification, or those whose identification is known but unclaimed by family. This law covers recent decedents sent to Legal Medicine Institutes as well as remains sent from cemeteries after the exhumation process. The regulation establishes a period of 30 days for a family member to make a claim, highlighting the need for wide publicity through a local newspaper, prohibiting donation in the event of a criminal death. The law also requires maintenance of a chain of custody to help in a subsequent identification, in the case of unidentified remains (photos, notes of physical characteristics fingerprint sheets, among others). References to this law are present on the donation programs of the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre [35] and University of Santa Cruz do Sul [37].
At the local level, there are currently 5570 municipalities in Brazil, each with its inherent peculiarities. For the present research, we conducted a case study on the Southeastern region capital municipalities (i.e., Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Vitória). These cities were selected considering factors such as proximity to the National Museum, population, comprising a significant percentage of the Brazilian population, and their influence on the national scene. We emphasize that although there may be a certain degree of variability in the legislation of municipalities not addressed in this work, all entities must follow the federal legislation, leaving little room for local variability.
In the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, regulation occurs through Law 39094 [42]. This regulation establishes a minimum period of three years for exhumations. At the end of this time, it is up to the family to decide on the destination for the remains, including storage in public ossuaries or incineration. In cases where there are no family members, or they choose not to take custody of the remains, cemeteries are allowed to donate the bones to research institutions. The law also requires cemeteries to maintain information about the individuals, such as name, burial date, death certificates, and any other documents necessary for the process.
In São Paulo, such issues are regulated by Law number 59196 [43], which establishes a minimum period for exhumations of three years, at the end of which the remains can be sent to the public ossuary or for incineration. Among the information to be kept by the cemetery are place, time, day and year of death; full name; sex; age; marital status; affiliation; profession; nationality; residence and domicile. The only reference regarding donations to research institutions present in the legislation concerns the burial of remains previously used in anatomical studies. Additionally, in São Paulo, law 17180 [44] addresses the preservation and study of remains linked to the last dictatorship period in the country (1964–1985), with the objective of identifying and retrieving history and memory.
Despite the lack of references regarding donations in São Paulo’s legislation, we came across bill 01-00449/2015 [45]. This proposal addresses the donation to public or private institutions of unidentified remains without signs of violent death, bodies donated at the initiative of family members or the individual, and unclaimed human remains stored in ossuaries or exhumed, respecting religious beliefs of the individual’s family and the prohibition of the sale of this material. With donation, remains would become an institution’s responsibility for an indefinite period, such that it must keep all documentation in its possession and bear any future burial expenses if needed. As a form of incentive, some benefits also would be provided to family members of individuals who make the donation. The bill has been in legal process since 2015, with no vote forecast.
In Belo Horizonte, funeral service is established by law 6725 [46]. As it is an older law, some modifications have been made by more recent decisions. Such changes can be found in the SES resolution number 4798 [47] and in law 10,828 [48]. According to the most recent changes, the minimum time for exhumation is three years for adults and two years for children, establishing incineration or deposit in a public ossuary as possible subsequent destinations, and requesting death certificates to bury the individuals. The possibility of donating the bones for academic or scientific activities is not addressed. For those interested in setting up a collection in the city, a more in-depth review of resolution SES number 4798 [47] would be important because it establishes technical specifications necessary for institutions that have custody of human remains in the state.
In Vitória, related information is present in law 6080 [49]. Contrary to what has been observed in other municipalities, this is not a specific regulation aimed at cemeteries; instead, it is a law that deals with various government sectors and provides only general information regarding the functioning of the cemeteries, placing the other regulations under the responsibility of the administration of each institution, which means they can be different in each cemetery. Among the general rules established by this regulation are a minimum of four years before exhumation, with the possible destinations including the public ossuary or incineration, and information that the cemetery must keep about the individuals (name, age, sex, marital status, affiliation, birthplace of the deceased, and the date and place of death). There are no references to donations to research institutions in this legislation.
With regard to exhumations in these municipalities, note that at least in some cases, legislation requires that they be carried out by cemetery employees. Although we cannot generalize, there are more than a few cases reported in the national media of negligence in the treatment of bodies in these institutions, which raises concerns about the condition of the recovered bones, especially when the process is not followed up by the individual’s relatives.
Even if such exhumations are carefully conducted, these professionals are not trained in detailed excavations or concerned with scientific rigor, as the recovery of even the smallest of bones would be preferable. Therefore, in the case of materials to be destined for scientific collections, it would be advisable for the excavation to be carried out by members of a research institution who are trained for this work, in order to minimize the damage caused and maximize the number of recovered bones. If that is not possible, we recommend that those responsible for the removal are instructed on the motivation and methods involved in archaeological excavation.
Regarding the information held by the cemeteries, there is a national requirement for institution to maintain death certificates of buried individuals, including information regarding name, age, sex, ancestry, state of origin, profession, place of birth, domicile, residency, date and place of the death, among others [50]. Despite the existence of this requirement, each municipality understands that it is necessary to keep only certain information about each individual, generating variability on the requirements among the different cemeteries, as shown in Table 1. For example, the city of Vitória requests information regarding occupation and residency, but Belo Horizonte does not demonstrate such concern, possibly considering the death certificate to be sufficient. This practice can be seen as complementary to the federal standard, or it may reflect recurrent omissions when the document is being filled out, allowing for the possibility of records being incomplete [51].
Another relevant issue refers to the transfer of material to the institution. In general, municipal laws list such activity as being the responsibility of the cemeteries, in vehicles suitable for this purpose. However, there are cases where the transfer is not mentioned or such requirement is not required. We recommend that the researcher may request an appropriate vehicle for such transport in order to treat the remains with the greatest possible respect.
Finally, if the agreement with the cemetery institution includes the donation of bones from unidentified individuals, some laws require the maintenance of custody of one of the bones for later identification (usually the femur) [42]; thus, these remains would not be complete in the collection, with at least part of a long bone missing, which would impair certain analyses. In any case, a lack of identification suggests a lack of information about the individual’s life, which, as discussed above, goes against the needs of a documented collection.

4. Preparing to Build a Forensic Collection in the 21st Century: Some Ethical Issues

When dealing with recent cases, there are laws that regulate some ethically relevant issues, such as rules of treatment and disposal of human bodies. However, “ethical” and “legal” are not synonymous. While laws may provide guidance, ethical norms leave gaps where the researcher must decide which path to follow.
Two criteria are essential to the ethics related to the donation of human remains: consent and participation. These criteria can be observed from two perspectives when we talk about recent collections, the first related to the individuals themselves and the second to their descendants, or other members of society who feel directly or indirectly affected by the research to be conducted in the collection.
Voluntary donations can occur when the individual reveals the desire to be part of the collection while still alive, or when, at the end of the contract period, family members choose the donation as a destination for the mortal remains. In both cases, it is not uncommon that the individual’s will during their life is not taken into consideration [52]. When it comes to donations initiated by the individual, family members after their death have the last word. Even documents signed by the deceased attesting to the will during their life do not guarantee that their body will be destined for the institution. In order for their decision to be respected, programs such as the one at the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre highlight the need for the donor to make sure that their family members are in agreement with the decision [35].
In the case of donations through the cemeteries, when the legal period has elapsed and the options for contacting family members have been exhausted, in many cases the researcher simply may not have information about the individual’s will and beliefs during their lifetime. Even so, there are some precautions that can be taken so that this acquisition occurs as ethically as possible. Knowledge that the source of osteological material is reliable and follows the proper legal parameters is a minimum requirement, as we know that it is not uncommon to have reports of these materials being stolen or sold. When opting for an agreement with cemetery institutions, some questions must be asked: In the act of exhumation, were family members notified? Did they consent? If the contact did not generate a response, have the possible means of contact been exhausted?
In order to carry out the donation process, some laws in Brazil require wide dissemination not only through the contact that the cemetery may have for the individual, but also through newspapers and other means, aiming to achieve maximum publicity [41]. Again, the ethical issues are not only linked to compliance to legal requirements. Therefore, even if it is not a legislative requirement, wide publicity is always recommended, as well as keeping in touch with the cemetery in case any relative may be interested in the whereabouts of their family member’s remains. If remains are requested by a family member, regardless of the processing stage the remains are in (even if they are already integrated in the collection), it is recommended that the return takes place immediately [22].
In the case of voluntary donations, for the remains to be part of the collection, it is important that the donation is carried out with informed consent, explaining all the details, including the processing to which the bones are submitted, how they will be stored, the purposes of study, how studies will be conducted, and how the data about the individual’s life, any documents, or even information generated through the analysis of the bones will be manipulated and used [53]. In this case, the donation may still be accompanied by some religious, philosophical or other requirement, where the use or handling of the bones may be limited or restricted. In cases like this, it is recommended that the institution itself investigate whether it would be possible to follow these requirements, and whether it is valid to accept donations limited by these demands, which can be seen as obstacles. If this is not possible, all this information must be explained in the donation terms. Consent must be as informed as possible, including all aspects of future use of the materials, verifying if the donors remain in agreement.
Recently, a less invasive alternative for osteological research has been the use of imaging methods such as x-ray, computed tomography, photogrammetry, 3D models, among others. A minimal intervention policy would guarantee more sensitive data and would be potentially less offensive to the individuals involved and their beliefs [54]. Digitization can represent a solution in cases where the remains need to be reburied, or an option in cases where the institution has its permanent custody, allowing the conduction of research with reduced physical contact, delaying bone degradation [55].
This replacement can be even more effective when referring to 3D image data banks. These models have high precision, allowing for digital modifications and manipulations that would not have been possible before, facilitating observations, descriptions, quantifications and the sharing of these models and results among researchers, without the need for physical displacement of the material [56], enabling the creation of detailed collections accessible worldwide such as the New Mexico Descendent Image Database (NMDID) [57].
It is also possible to create these models physically through the appropriate equipment (3D printers), generating accurate representations at different scales, and allowing them to be manipulated and handled just like the original material (though with certain limitations). This has become popular with the substantial reduction in the cost of this equipment [55,58], allowing its use, for example, for educational purposes in the teaching of anatomy and osteology [54], helping institutions that previously did not have access to human remains [52].
Despite the advantages of image collections, it is important to consider that the researcher’s responsibility in relation to the remains is not limited only to their physical aspect, also including the data generated through their analysis. Personal information such as name, medical record and others must be kept in confidentiality in a database with restricted access to the research team or guest researchers, who in this case will be trusted to keep the same conduct [22,31,59]. If necessary to disclose such data for publications and presentations, it is recommended that they be treated in association, separating them into subgroups so that the persons are not individualized; even so, only those data that are absolutely important to explain the methodology or exemplify the results obtained should be disclosed [22]. The researcher must also be aware of the ramifications of the information obtained because the results cannot only inform but potentially impact living groups in a positive or negative way [60].
Recently, a group of more than 60 researchers, including archaeologists, geneticists, anthropologists and curators from more than 30 countries, came together to reach five global guidelines for more ethical studies of human materials [61]. Even though these guidelines were originally intended for studies involving ancient DNA, they are very much in line with what we have debated here. Discussions like the one carried out by these researchers, and in this article, potentially help to establish minimum and practical criteria to provide a path that can be followed and stimulate reflection on the way we deal scientifically with human remains. Only with an inclusive and respectful perspective, seeking scientific knowledge that does not cost the suffering of other individuals, can anthropology be justified as a discipline. A synthesis of how some of these issues have been addressed in collection in Brazil and South America can be found in Plens et al. [62].

5. Discussion

In order to guarantee the accuracy of established methodologies for skeletal analyses, collections used in these studies need to represent the local populations. Such representation will be directly influenced by the method of choice for material acquisition. A study conducted in the Bass Collection, housed at the University of Tennessee [23], points out the bias of collections developed from family donations or unclaimed bodies coming from forensic medical institutions, in that case resulting in a sample with an over-representation of white men, elderly people, people who died of unnatural causes, and individuals with antemortem traumatic injuries or surgical interventions. Likewise, that study demonstrated a tendency for voluntary donation to be made by people with a higher level of education and socioeconomic status, when compared to individuals who arrived at the collection through the donation of family members or the legal medical system [23].
Studies that address this perspective (or reference collections as a whole) are still incipient in Brazil [20]; more research is needed to understand the impact that these factors can have in our country, affecting the representativeness of the existing collections. When thinking about assembling a collection through partnerships with cemetery or institutions, some inquiries are necessary. Who are the individuals who usually donate their bodies to science? Are there any recurrent patterns of age, class or race in the case of unclaimed individuals? Can individuals with greater financial support have access to permanent graves, and, therefore, would they not be represented in the collection? Are there any religious influences in this regard? Questions like these are yet to be answered for most current Brazilian collections.
A study conducted regarding the identified collection of the Center for Studies in Forensic Anthropology of the University of Pernambuco [30], for example, mentions the low number of children who arrive at the institution compared to the demographic data of local deaths. The author attributes this fact to a higher emotional response for children, due to the lives lost prematurely, causing a greater attachment to the remains. Thus, certain factors such as age at death, racial proportions and presence of disease will not necessarily reflect the local population but that of the subgroup of individuals who ended up in the collection. This must be considered when choosing the sources of the material, seeking inclusion that reflects the population as realistically as possible.
In addition to the variability of the morphological elements, when planning a modern human osteological collection, it is important to have in mind what information about the individuals that will comprise it will be needed and where these data can be obtained. Collections are not created to fulfill a single objective but instead serve as an important source of knowledge. The more data we have about the individuals that compose them, the more versatile the collections [2]. Therefore, any information available about the individual’s life may prove to be relevant in a future moment, even if not for the research that motivated the creation of the collection [24]. Among the minimum pertinent information is name, sex, date of birth and death, cause and manner of death [2,17,22], socioeconomic background, biological ancestry, occupation [24].
Brazilian municipal legislation often requires cemeterial institutions to maintain extensive information about the buried individual, as well as information regarding family members. This information, in addition to being useful in itself, can help in the search for supplementary data such as medical and family history, in cases where the individual was in a hospital shortly before death, or data relating to the autopsy, including a detailed examination of the exterior and interior of the body, reporting the cause of death and possible injuries to the hard or soft tissue [24,31]. However, despite the legislation, most cemeteries do not keep very accurate, or accessible, records of the deceased. It is necessary to be cautious when assuming the veracity of the acquired information. For example, some authors [23,30] warn that only in a low percentage of cases is the individual’s ancestry self-reported, being most often superficially assessed by the pathologist or other observers, which raises questions about its reliability. Authors also highlight the need for further investigation to understand the physiological changes linked to aging [18], especially regarding children, given the low impact of hormonal changes on sexual dimorphism [63].
Due to all this complexity, in addition to other issues linked to the formation of collections (ethical, financial, curatorial and political issues), the ideal context is far from reality in most cases. In fact, currently well-documented collections in Brazil are very scarce [31,63]. In general, a large part of the existing collections worldwide exhibits lack of representation of some age groups, poor preservation [17], lack of data on the individuals that compose them [14] or low reliability of many information [31]. In addition to problems such as the antiquity of the remains, most collections with which current techniques have been developed were generated decades ago, some from the 18th century [22].
An alternative to circumvent the lack of adequate collections has been the use of imaging methods (tomography, radiography, X-ray, to name a few) [64] providing advantages as being nondestructive or invasive methods when compared to more traditional collections and methods [27], even with intrinsic limitations to their application such as high costs and difficulty of manipulation.
There has been an effort towards the building of identified collections around the globe which include more complete information, such as ancestry and metric aspects that better represent local variations [2]. A survey carried out in Brazil [20] points out the existence of a minimum of seven osteological reference collections in the country. However, we know that in practice some exist only nominally, while others are limited to some portions of the skeleton. Nevertheless, despite the existing limitations, research in forensic anthropology aimed at adapting international formulas to the standard found on national soil is beginning to be carried out in Brazil [65,66,67,68].

6. Conclusions

When dealing with municipal legislation, we are faced with a legal environment of uncertainty; in most of the municipalities investigated, there is no mention regarding the possibility of donating human remains to scientific collections. An exception to this trend was the city of Rio de Janeiro [42]. Nevertheless, we do not know of institutions that have used this law to establish links with cemeteries for building a collection. It is worth highlighting the attempt to institutionalize a specific law for such procedures in the state of São Paulo [45], although this still needs to be voted.
Institutions that aim to acquire human bones for teaching and research purposes have sought support in federal legislation, where the path is clearer and the precedents are already established [34,35,36,37,38,39,40]. In this context, voluntary donations have been made through law 10406 [33], while the donation of unidentified or unclaimed remains has been made through law 8501 [41]. In both cases, these donations have not necessarily been for integration into osteological collections, but for use in various scientific and educational purposes.
The donation of unclaimed remains after the exhumation process, as occurred during the formation of the identified collection of the University of Pernambuco [30], can generate a constant flow of skeletal materials in a good state of preservation, containing essential information associated with the individuals, and keeping the collections as representative as possible. However, due to the poor record keeping of some cemeteries, it is recommended that the researchers be cautious in assuming the authenticity of such information.
Although voluntary donation may potentially require less bureaucracy, it certainly proves to be a more unstable path because it depends on the number of people willing to carry out the process and the local cultural practices. However, with wide dissemination and awareness, it may also become a viable option to ensure a flow of remains needed for osteological collections.
Regarding ethics, when dealing with skeletal materials, it is easy to forget that we are dealing with human beings. There is a tendency to dehumanize their remains in order to make contact with them less difficult [69]. It is the researcher’s duty to constantly remember this fact, bearing in mind that the study of human materials is not a right but a privilege. The freedom to inquire should not override the right and respect due to these individuals and their descendants [70].
Even though we may never find answers to questions such as what concerns should be prioritized and who has the right to voice an opinion on the destination of the remains, an interdisciplinary approach can help define the philosophical, political, cultural, ethical and scientific questions that should be addressed, helping to understand and address the tangle of dilemmas that surround ethics in bioarcheology and biological anthropology [54]. Recently, we have seen an increase in the use of imaging techniques in biomedical and forensic studies [58]. These techniques show promise, not only in terms of preserving the original samples but also extracting more information, facilitating the manipulation, transport and sharing of data; however, the ethical and practical limits of these applications are not yet well defined due to their relatively recent character [55].
In the past, skeletal collections were formed by various means. These were very useful for identifying a series of parameters related to human variability that are still internationally used as references. More recently, the construction of properly identified and ethical osteological collections has been a worldwide challenge because a large part of the existing collections can be subject to several criticisms by the scientific community and by society in general, either because of their incompleteness or the way in which they were constituted. In the case of the National Museum collections, which for many decades were used as a source of knowledge about the Brazilian populations of the past, these collections were irreparably altered by the 2018 fire. Considering the institutional need for a human skeletal collection of reference, there is a need for scientific reflection, dialogue with experts, transparency in the discussion with the public, and the search of an adequate legislative framework. We engage some of these issues in this paper.
The analysis carried out here showed that the construction of modern osteological human collections is still underdeveloped in Brazil, related to variability of detail between the municipalities despite a common legal framework. From this perspective, it is necessary to broaden legislative discussions to reflect current ethical issues so that it becomes possible to build future contemporary collections of human remains that are embedded with great scientific potential and are committed to the society. The ethical, legislative and technical questions discussed here are not exclusive to Brazil, and it is our expectation that researchers from other countries may benefit from the points of view presented here.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, P.V.M. and C.R.-C.; Data curation, P.V.M., H.P.S., V.B. and S.R.; Formal analysis, H.P.S. and M.B.; Investigation, M.B., V.B. and C.R.-C.; Supervision, C.R.-C.; Validation, H.P.S.; Visualization, S.R.; Writing—original draft, P.V.M.; Writing—review & editing, P.V.M., H.P.S., M.B. and C.R.-C. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Technical reserve of the Biological Anthropology sector. (A) Mobile shelving unit. (B) Containers used to accommodate the osteological material prior to the 2018 fire. Source: SABMN.
Figure 1. Technical reserve of the Biological Anthropology sector. (A) Mobile shelving unit. (B) Containers used to accommodate the osteological material prior to the 2018 fire. Source: SABMN.
Forensicsci 02 00022 g001
Table 1. Information kept by selected cemeteries by municipality (according to the legislation).
Table 1. Information kept by selected cemeteries by municipality (according to the legislation).
CityPeriod until ExhumationAgeSexAncestryOccupationNationalityResidencyData about the Death
Rio de Janeiro 3 YearsXXXXXXX
São Paulo3 YearsXXXXXXX
Belo Horizonte3 Years (Adults)-------
2 Years (Children)
Vitória4 YearsXXX X X
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Mendes, P.V.; Silva, H.P.; Bastos, M.; Bittar, V.; Reis, S.; Rodrigues-Carvalho, C. Osteological Collections of the National Museum in Brazil: Challenges and New Perspectives for a Historical Collection. Forensic Sci. 2022, 2, 287-301.

AMA Style

Mendes PV, Silva HP, Bastos M, Bittar V, Reis S, Rodrigues-Carvalho C. Osteological Collections of the National Museum in Brazil: Challenges and New Perspectives for a Historical Collection. Forensic Sciences. 2022; 2(2):287-301.

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Mendes, Paulo Vítor, Hilton P. Silva, Murilo Bastos, Victor Bittar, Silvia Reis, and Claudia Rodrigues-Carvalho. 2022. "Osteological Collections of the National Museum in Brazil: Challenges and New Perspectives for a Historical Collection" Forensic Sciences 2, no. 2: 287-301.

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