There are about 206 (with some variation) bones in an adult human skeleton. As babies, we have about 270 soft bones, but as we grow and our bodies change, certain bones begin to go through a process called ossification- the bones harden up and fuse together.
Most bones articulate, or come together, with some other bone or joint. However, in your neck, right now, there is a ‘U’ shaped bone called the hyoid that doesn’t hang out with any other bones. It’s just kind of floating around in there, but kept in place by muscles.
The structure of the bone is fairly simple. A “mature” hyoid ossifies at 6 areas. I put the word mature in quotes because it does not always fully ossify, even in adults. While it is a bone that can be used to age (tell how old a person is at time of death), the inconsistency of ossification on the bone may not be reliable for age estimates on its own.
Now, if you think the idea of a floating bone in your neck is awesome, this small bone can have a lot to say when it comes to a forensic investigation beyond age estimation.
The hyoid is fractured in one-third of all homicides by hanging or strangulation (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8934706).
When enough pressure is applied, considering the horns of the hyoid bone aren’t typically very thick or large, you can see how the bone may be easily fractured under pressure.
When ossification happens, the bone hardens and is less flexible or mobile, so the older a victim is the more likely it is that a fracture would show up in a strangulation or hanging case. This is not to say that these fractures occur in every strangulation case, but the diagnostic can be a vital part of a forensic anthropology examination.
Here’s some more context for you!
Take a look at the position of the hyoid bone in relation to your neck. Then wrap your hands around your neck as if you are strangling yourself (DO NOT STRANGLE YOURSELF!)
It should become very clear how easy it would be to cause damage to this bone during a hanging, strangulation or throttling.
I purposely decided not to include images of actual strangulation victims. However, if you decide to do some more research on your own (I’m a big fan of academic and professional exploration), please keep in mind that the images can get very graphic. So if you’re squeamish, beware!