Giving Families Closure

Forensic anthropology and archaeology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in popular culture. There isn’t usually a huge lab with all the best equipment and the ability to tell sex, ancestry or age at the quick glance of a stapes.


The lab at the Jeffersonian on Bones.

However, what the TV does get right is the ultimate pay-off of these forensic investigations: justice and closure.

In modern forensic contexts, archaeologists are usually under a time-crunch. They twist into yoga-like positions to carefully excavate the remains of the individual. They keep digging, whether or not it’s raining or 103 degrees. Then, the forensic anthropologist analyzes the remains, also with a time-sensitive awareness, and tries to make an identification, sometimes sending teeth or other DNA-containing matter to the FBI for testing.

It hasn’t always been this way. Before these current forensic techniques were developed, many individuals went unidentified.

That’s exactly what happened to Kristyne Olivia Trejo, a mother of two from Santa Ana, California, whose remains were interred in San Bernardino in 1989, almost a year after her disappearance.

The last time they saw their mother, Tina Marie Costa was 5 years old and her brother Andrew Trejo was 10 years old. In this emotional video from NBC Los Angeles, the pair speaks out about this experience.

“It’s been hard for me waiting for all these years, hoping that one day I’d get home and just see her there. There was an empty part of me that only she could fill.” -Trejo

After 28 years of wondering what happened to her, most of their questions have been answered. A sample from Kristyne Trejo’s remains was taken about a decade ago for modern DNA testing. It was matched when those with missing family members were invited to sumbit their own DNA samples at the Orange County Sheriff Department’s “ID the Missing” event in October 2015.

“At least, we can lay her down to rest — that’s my closure.” -Costa

The overall sentiment is the relief of knowing what happened to their mother and having her returned to the family to be given a proper burial. Though the question of who committed this act against Kristyne Trejo may never be answered, the family feels reassured she is watching over them.

This is the power of forensic anthropology. This is the pay-off. As long as there are murderers, there will always be cases like this. But as long as there are forensic anthropologists, there will always be grief-stricken families given the right to mend.


Kindred spirits


    Truly beyond bones and stones, is a WordPress site that strives to spread knowledge and awareness of anthropology. You can find all the latest updates about biological anthropology here, too.
  2. Bone Broke
    This blog by Jess Beck focuses on archaeology, osteology and biological anthropology. She presents these topics with a casual and fun, but intelligent tone that makes something that could be boring easy and interesting to read.
  3. Bones Don’t Lie
    Another easy-to-read blog, Katy Emery likes to tackles issues from every angle, giving a well-rounded view.
  4. Busting Myths About Human Nature
    As the title suggests, Dr. Fuentes likes to clear up misconceptions and uses anthropology in a way that relates to our everyday lives.
  5. Forensic Anna:thropology
    Dr. Anna Williams is a forensic anthropologist who poses excellent questions about ethics, methods and more, focusing on debates within the field.
  6. Kevishire
    Patrick Clarkin blogs about anthropology in a very deep, philosophical way. He’s good at making arguments, explaining what it means to be human and making short, meaningful posts.
  7. Powered by Osteons
    This is Forbes contributor Kristina Killgroves personal blog about anthropology. She’s a bit more clinical in tone than I would like at times, but her reviews of ‘Bones’ and her use of photos is worth a look.
  8. The Pleistocene Scene
    This academic blog is useful for finding your way to further reading and resources.
  9. These Bones of Mine
    These Bones of Mine is very focused on osteology and also often directs you to further academic reading to understand the facts of each topic.
  10. What Makes Us Human
    Dr. Joyce’s blog on Psychology Today aims to explain “What Makes Us Human.” She often focuses on the ritual aspects of human life.

Race isn’t relevant, it’s relative

Way, way back in time, when science was still being born, the idea of race was created to divide humankind by skin color.  This social construction has persisted over time, despite the fact the there is no biological basis for race. In fact, our perception of race changes through time and space, making it impossible to measure. That’s right – forensic anthropologists can’t tell you exactly what skin color someone had when they died.

What science can determine by looking at the bones of the deceased is the person’s ancestry, or their ethnic descent. Using craniometric variation, or the different measurements of skulls, forensic anthropologists can figure out if a person was Africoid (previously referred to as Negroid), Caucasoid or Asioid (previously referred to as Mongoloid).

How is this any different from classifying based on race? It’s rather simple. These scientists aren’t saying, “This dead guy was black, and this one was white.” Rather, they are saying, “This dead girl had the cranial structure of someone whose ancestors were from a European country.” This can help make a positive identification on a John or Jane Doe, or to confirm the identity of a known person.

Of course, like most scientific techniques involving human variation, this isn’t 100% accurate. In the modern human population, it isn’t impossible to find a female’s remains that have male characteristics, just as it isn’t impossible to find an Asioid skull with Caucasoid characteristics. Sometimes, this can result in a faulty identification, in which case it would be better to leave it undetermined.

Some forensic scientists argue that race is an acceptable measurement. Norman Sauer, for example, was the co-director of the forensic anthropology program at Michigan State University. In an article, he proclaimed assigning race to skeletal remains doesn’t justify the social construct of race, but it does predict the individual’s racial category as assigned by the society in which the individual lived.

“In ascribing a race name to a set of skeletonized remains, the anthropologist is actually translating information about biological traits to a culturally constructed labeling system that was likely to have been applied to a missing person.”-Sauer

Now, Sauer is not saying race is a biologically defined and accepted concept. He is giving the forensic anthropologist the power to try to think anthropologically about race and ask, how would the society this individual lived in classify their race based on the craniometric determination of ancestry?

While the scientific community does disagree about ideas regarding racial classification, they all agree on one thing: Forensic anthropology is changing. It is transforming in a way that discontinues antiquated ideas about not only race, but also gender, DNA and human rights cases.


Why You Shouldn’t Take Jesus’s Real Face Seriously


In the Christian-American culture, Jesus is depicted as a blue-eyed white man with long light brown hair. Many have argued that, based on the region of Galilee in which he lived, he would have darker skin and brown features.

While that is true, the facial reconstruction retired medical artist Richard Neave created of “Jesus” is exactly that: a creation. Neave’s reconstruction was based on three skulls found in Galilee. None of these skulls were actually Jesus.

Forensic facial reconstruction of an individual based on that individual’s complete skull is flawed as it is. The discipline is subjective and relies on artistic skill. While there has been some success in missing persons cases and the like, there have also been cases where the facial reconstruction significantly damaged the chances of identifying an individual – and that is with the direct use of modern remains.

Without the remains of the individual, Jesus’s name should have never been attached to Neave’s drawing of what is basically an ancient hybrid in this way. This reconstruction was completed in 2002, yet every year around Christmas, it is still being thrown into the spotlight with headlines like, “Science says this is Jesus’s real face.” And people believe it!

This is not to say Neave’s work is complete poppycock. It is the closest representation of what a man during Jesus’ time and in his region would look like. It’s just not Jesus.