ForAnth News Alert #1

This morning, The Courier published an article about a UK professor from Dundee University on the significance of her discipline: forensic anthropology.

Sue Black is the go-to gal for identifying human remains in Britain. She gave a talk on Saturday and spoke to reporters before the event.

Black has experience with war crimes, natural disaster aftermaths and international crimes in addition to the somewhat everyday sort like murder.

On March 5, the University and Black will be hosting events for International Women’s Day as well as a talk entitled “International Crime,” featuring important officials.

This is all cool, but what I like about this article is its attention to improving forensic anthropology in legal contexts. The University is taking its own steps to help this along with its development of a new research center for forensic science.

“My principal role is identification of victims,“ Professor Black explained. “This is something that has become increasingly important in the modern international judicial system.”

I also enjoyed Black’s analysis of how forensic science is changing.

“There is always the old school science that says a body has to be identified using forensic science, but a lot of the work we do is now in the identification of the living,” Professor Black said.

If you’re wondering how that is applied, a good example is one which she and her team have been honored for.

“This guy in Manchester has gone down for 15 years for the rape of a two-year-old girl. He videoed it and drugged the child so that she would be compliant. It’s horrendous. Up until that point he had said ‘no comment no comment no comment’, but when our report came in identifying him from his anatomy in the video, it was ‘ok then, change of plea’. That change of plea is incredibly important because you save a shed-load of money in the court room which is important for the public purse, but much more important it means that little girl and her family aren’t having to give evidence in court.”

It’s amazing what forensic anthropologists can accomplish. The best part is, most people don’t realize what they are capable of. Imagine the surprise of this sex offender when he was identified based on his body structure.

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Anthropology in the news

When I tell people I am a double major in journalism and anthropology, the first two questions I am usually asked are, “What exactly does an anthropologist do?” and “How did you decide to do those two majors?”

The first question isn’t answerable in a small-talk setting, but I settle on the definition that anthropologists study what it means to be human. To answer the second question, I’ve always loved news and writing, but I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. I knew the chances of becoming one were minuscule, so I figured I could do science journalism if all else failed.

At this point, I am usually asked if there is a “big calling for that.” People just don’t know that anthropology is going on around us all the time, including in forensic contexts.

So whether I favor my journalism degree or my anthropology degree, there’s always something to do if you know where to look. And, while there is plenty to see, a lot of journalists have flaws in reporting on the subject.

For instance, here is a story from Feb. 17.

Mercyhurst Univeristy’s Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, who examined human remains on February 7, announced his belief that it is the body of Patsy Hudson who has been missing since July.

The article reads “The professor and his team of Forensic and Biological Anthropology Master’s students are working to prove that suspicion.”

My problem with this sentence is it makes it sound like they know without a doubt who the woman is and are working to prove that when they should be working to identify the body without bias.

To be clear, I’m in no way doubting Dirkmaat’s motivations seeing as he has taken part in more than 300 cases and teaches this for a living. It’s a criticism of how the media handles these stories. The reporter also chose to use the word “race” where it should say “ancestry,” which is a changing concept in forensic anthropology.

What makes this story unique, however, was handled very well. The case was brought to Dirkmaat by police and he was able to help locate the remains within days.

In addition to the newly dead, cold cases are often the job of the forensic anthropologist. Recently, Anthony Falsetti and his students at Arizona State University analyzed remains of a case from the 1980s.

The reporter in this case, Nico Santos, hit the nail on the head with how he presented the details.

“Since 1984, a lot has changed,” explained Falsetti. “In our science and anthropology, we’ve changed. We’ve gotten more accurate in our estimations in age and sex and ancestry, as well as other technologies … obviously DNA.”

The professor and his students used new technology to take a fresh look at the case with the goal of identifying the victim and bringing her killer to justice.

“Someday she’ll have her own name back,” said Dr. Falsetti.

There was also a story about the Tim Bosma trial. Dr. Tracy Rogers is the anthropologist who helped identify Tim Bosma. It is suspected Bosma was murdered by two men. His bones were found inside an incinerator on a farm in Ontario. Rogers testified in court that an arm bone found at the scene was burned at a high temp.

This story was straight forward and a little dry, but I like it for that reason. It shows the other responsibilities and significance of the forensic anthropologist.

Besides pressing cases such as these, anthropology is discussed in terms of academic programming, public exhibits and professional conferences all the time.

Every week, anthropologists are doing important work for both past and present individuals and for humanity as a whole.

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Laughable Moments on Bones

I have to get this off my chest first: I am a fan of the TV show Bones. It’s mostly for the deep life lessons and experiences the show tackles as well as the heart-tugging romance and strong female characters.

However, I cannot ignore the fact that the show often grossly misinterprets the life of a forensic anthropologist (among other specialists) and misrepresents scientific probability and facts.

Before experiencing a glimpse of the life myself last summer, I knew still this about the show but it wasn’t as glaringly obvious as it is to me now.
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In season 1, episode 19, “The Man in the Morgue,” Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is in New Orleans working to identify remains from Hurricane Katrina. Detective Harding brings in a body and within a greeting, Tempe determines sex and age. She does this without even taking the body out of its bag. There is some leathery flesh still attached. In real life, cleaning the flesh off of the body and analyzing landmarks would be necessary, but she accomplishes all this with just a glance.

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In an episode of season 2, the team is called to a case where a person was dissolved in a tub full of chemicals. With only fragments of the body to analyze, Tempe gives the somehow perfectly in-tact skull cap to Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) in hopes the artist will be able to reconstruct the skull. Notice the eye orbits aren’t present in any capacity on that skull cap, yet somehow Angela manages to extrapolate eye shape. At least they knew not to go way overboard with the reconstruction and give us a full skull or something.

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Season 3, episode 2 opens with a woman being blown up in her car. Once again, Tempe takes a gander at the remains without moving them or cleaning off the flesh and determines age, sex and even that she’s given birth. And, once again, this is simply not possible. I don’t understand the need for Tempe to have been able to tell the victim had given birth. It’s a wild assumption and something that could have been discovered by straight identification.

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In The Master in the Slop, Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) has to identify a set of remains discovered in pig slop. After separating slop from bones, it takes Tempe and her colleague about 30 seconds to identify sex, age and ancestry. The methods they use (greater sciatic notch, auricular surface and tooth shape, respectively) are real methods. But these things alone tell us almost nothing. For example, a woman could have a male-like sciatic notch. You would need to analyze the rest of the sacrum and other landmarks in order to determine this. They identify these characteristics in an insanely short amount of time, showing a lack in proper methods and complete disregard for human variation.

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From adaptation to colorism

The shades of man are many. While Von Luschan’s chromatic scale is no longer used much in the way of science, it’s a good way to see the different pigmentation of humankind.

There are 36 skin shades shown in the scale:

Each pigment is part of a group and are ranked in terms of probability to burn or tan.

Fitzpatrick Type Also called Sunburning Tanning behavior Von Luschan’s chromatic scale
I Light, pale white Often Occasionally 1–5
II White, fair Usually Sometimes 6–10
III Medium, white to light brown Rarely Usually 11–15
IV Olive, moderate brown Rarely Often 16–21
V Brown, dark brown Very rarely Sometimes darkens 22–28
VI Very dark brown to black Extremely rarely Naturally black-brown skin 29–36

I’m sure you’ve wondered at some point in your life how these skin colors evolved, and I’m equally sure you have the basic idea if you have any common sense.

Early hominins had light skin and dark hair. As they became less hairy for other evolutionary reasons, the skin darkened to provide the protection from the sun that was now missing. As populations moved from the heart of Africa to other regions, skin colors adapted to the different environments and varying sunshine.

Geographically, we can see the darker pigments are found closer to the equator and it gradually lightens until we reach the poles.

In modern times, the ease of travel has brought with it significant change in the confinement of skin pigment to geographic location, but this still gives a good general idea.

Studies show melanin levels in the skin are correlated with its color. Melanin content is substantially ethnically different down to even the composition of the melanin, with darker skin containing more of the pigment than lighter skin. (Melanin also helps synthesize vitamin D, which is essential to bone health.)

Sunlight also affects skin color. Two clines evolved in the human population – dark skin with most UV exposure and light skin with the least. Humans also undergo a process where sunlight stimulates our melanocytes, which produce more melanin: tanning. Tanning is an adaptation to protect us from damaging our skin cells.

So, that’s how we came to be black and white. (Or more accurately, multitudes of tan.)

We’re coming to the end of Black History Month. One of the most influential black leaders in the history of America is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

What the doc is speaking about in this quote isn’t in fact racism, but colorism. Racism depends on factors besides skin color. To be colorist is to classify status based on solely the color of one’s skin. In America, colorism is prominently against African Americans, but it occurs in every group.

We all know the roots of colorism. European supremacy to justify slavery, the division inside the black community in order to rise in status, the one drop rule that stated one single drop of African blood legally defined a person as black…it’s just a mess.

And while all those things are in the past, our society still struggles with echoes of these beliefs. If you’re white, you’re still more likely to be hired and to receive quality education and less likely to be incarcerated. In 2016, we still have to emphasize that #blacklivesmatter – because they don’t to so many (I’ll try to be nice) uninformed people.

But I guess we shouldn’t expect things to be hunky dory, considering this:slaveryIt takes time to change beliefs that have been so ingrained over time. It seems more white than black people think we are well on our way to ending the plight of African-Americans. This is more likely due to modern forms of racism than actual advancement. Rather than being outright racist, we have a society that likes to pretend it isn’t.

While many are focusing on solving these issues and more using emotional arguments and sociological perspectives, I think science should have a voice in this (and most issues) as well.

Colorism is stupid. It’s actually that simple. The spectrum of tan that spans the globe is a product of evolution and all colors have the exact same value, which is the value of survival and adaptation. Not civilized versus savage.

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Tit for Tat: An argument for body modification

Those youths and their inked arms and pesky lip earrings! These new fads are just crazy…

I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of this at one point or another. When I pierced my own lip in 9th grade, my mom was so upset. She didn’t understand the “why’ in what I had done.

Culturally, piercings, tattoos and other forms of body decoration have existed for thousands of years. Many forms of body modification were independently invented. This tells me I’m not weird for wanting to poke a hole through my face. It’s a natural, visual way to build on our personal, human identities.

Some of those customs may seem a bit strange to you – lip plates and teeth gems. Believe it or not, people in developed countries are displaying even stranger, more complex mods.

But is it really ‘strange’ if it is a reflection of ourselves which is partly shaped by the society we find ourselves in? I think not.

Let’s look at these customs by type.

First, we have tattoos, which most cultures developed independently. In ancient times, they were used to show religious affiliation, social status, coming-of-age rites and more.

Tattoos remain highly spiritual today. The most common tattoos include crosses, angels, angel wings, mandalas, dream catchers,  celestial objects, inspirational quotes and still Japanese Irezumi. These symbols tie our bodies with our spirits, our faith. They tell rather important parts of our identities in pictures and script.

Many people get tattoos with other people or to celebrate or commemorate people and events. This adds an even deeper dimension than the past. We are making this a social activity, and it adds important chapters of our story to the visual representation of it. We are wearing our hearts on our sleeves, literally.

It’s also common for people to get icons from pop culture tattooed, simply allowing them to express their support for a piece of art that has inspired them or shaped their worldview.

Piercings are often lumped together with tattoos, but they serve a much different function. In the past, they served to display status of nobility or military or, for women, status of marriage. These meanings have mostly detached from the art of piercing.

Today, piercings are about attitude. They are meant as a statement and demonstrate counterculture, or going against mainstream. The interesting thing about this is piercings are so common, they are hardly countering anything. They used to. It seems they were successful in pushing against the norms. Even so, they still are meant to represent a free, rebellious spirit. They signal a certain amount of risk-taking and a desire to be unique. In this way of being identity enhancers, they are similar to tattoos.

Both piercings and tattoos also have a sense of sexuality to them. Navel piercings, tongue piercings, nipple piercings – ahem, other piercings – they all send signals to potential mates about the comfortable and in-control sexual identity of the pierced. Lower back tattoos, or the patriarchal-named “tramp stamp,” have the unfortunate labeling power to single out women as “sluts.” This has made the tattoo more popular, however, as a tool to empower women against slut-shaming.

The most important function of both tattoos and piercings may be the surge of body positivity that comes with the rush of the experience. Since when we choose to modify our bodies we are choosing to display something more of ourselves, it has a positive affect on our self-esteem. It makes us more interesting, gives us something to talk about and something to look back on. Instead of thinking of them as modifications akin to breast implants, we should think of them as body additions or body art. They accentuate qualities, not change them.

For these reasons, the regulation of body art in the workplace and military is silly. If someone is good enough to work for a company with mods covered, they are good enough to work with them showing. They don’t denote disrespect or “white trash” or the state of being a “slut.”

One woman may not be able to join the Marines because of her tattoo on her neck. The kicker is, if the women’s uniform wasn’t designed to be lower cut than the men’s, Kate Pimental (the woman) would be all set because her tat would be covered.

If the military is progressive enough to let women in, maybe they should rethink these antiquated policies. After all, mighty warriors of the past were often head-to-toe in tattoos; it seems they were further along than modern America.

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Metastasizing numbers in the modern world

Most people describe cancer as a modern disease. This isn’t entirely true. While cases of cancer are certainly more common now than ever, cancer has existed since humans have.

Bioarchaeologists haven’t discovered too much physical evidence of cancer, but this is because the technology hasn’t been around long enough. Paleopathology, or the study of disease in ancient human remains, has made bounds since the development of medical technologies like multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) and x-rays. These along with a standardized technique for visual analysis will help scientists make discoveries about cancer from already known remains.

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Even with the major changes in technology, there haven’t been too many discovered cases to date. It’s between 200-300 cases. This is where the argument for cancer as a man-made disease comes in.

Some scientists argue that cancer is a modern disease because of several factors, including but not limited to:

  1. the low number of ancient finds
  2. the Industrial Revolution
  3. the obesity epidemic
  4. tobacco use
  5. increased exposure to carcinogens

These factors have one thing in common – civilization. However, what they fail to consider is the expanded lifespan of the modern individual compared with an ancient human and the advancement of medical diagnoses.

cancer mummy

The Siberian Ukok princess died from cancer about 2,500 years ago.

In ancient times, many people went through life without being diagnosed or treated, and they didn’t live long enough for it to have such intense effects. After all, cancer is more likely to develop the older you get. Another flaw with that argument is ancient people were exposed to plenty of carcinogens.

Some radical views suggest cancer is entirely man-made, asserting “there is nothing in the natural world that can cause cancer.” Obviously, this is simply scientifically false. You can be born with cancer. The sun causes cancer, genetics cause cancer and so do chemicals.

You might be thinking, chemicals you say? Aren’t those man-made? Some are, but 99% of the chemicals that get into our systems are naturally occurring.

Understanding this and studying how cancer evolved is essential to modern America. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, the most common forms being breast and lung cancer. One death out of every four is due to this disease. By looking at its evolution, we can try to understand genetically what makes those genes expressed. Studying cancer from this perspective can help develop new treatments, creating a better future.

Medicine and treatments aren’t the only part of surviving cancer. It’s also about the patient’s mental state. Many cancer victims blame themselves. They wonder what they did to deserve it. I hope this information can put that critical voice to rest.

http://www.pinterest.com/adenardotheonly/cancer-stats/

Further Reading:

Read about the Ptolemaic period Egyptian mummy with prostate cancer.

Check out this slideshow of cancer in an Egyptian skeleton.

More about the evolution of cancer.

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I feel like a hero – and you are my heroin

That’s right. The heroin epidemic is so out of control in the US, The Cincinnati Enquirer has their own Terry DeMio to report on all things heroin-related.

In more than half of the states, heroin use is on a steep incline.

From 2000 to 2014, there has been a 138.8 percent increase in drug overdoses. 61% of overdoses in 2014 were opioid/heroin-related. Prescribed medications such as fentanyl are becoming more prevalent, and that drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Perhaps most alarming is the numbers in New Jersey, which has been coined Herointown by a group of journalists in the area. This project includes a page dedicated to every person who died from heroin in the state since 2004 and includes more than 5000 people’s names, ages, hometowns and years of death.

And that is only the deceased victims in a single state. Think of how many people are living with this addiction right now.

Besides the visible symptoms like shortness of breath, dry mouth, small pupils, sudden changes in behavior, disorientation and droopy appearance, heroin causes lasting bone damage.

  1. Osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is correlated with drug abuse involving a needle. This is a bone infection that travels through the blood stream. Because it is most likely to affect the spine in adults, it can cause lifelong disability. If caught soon enough – which is unlikely to be the case if you are a drug abuser – the infected bone can be removed through surgery.

2. Osteoporosis

Opiate abuse has been linked to osteopenia, which means a decrease in bone density. Eventually, this can take a turn for the worst, becoming osteoporosis. This can cause the bones to become so brittle, a simple fall can cause them to fracture.

3. Arthritis

Because addicts usually also suffer from malnutrition, their joints usually weaken. The nutritional deficiencies negatively affect the body’s ability to repair itself, causing osteoarthritis.

4. Poor Posture

Opiate users are known to have poor posture. The weakening of the muscles that support the spine can increase pain and the risk of injury just from doing everyday activities.

5. Partial Paralysis

The atrophied muscles and bone diseases associated with heroin use can lead to paralysis of the affected areas.

If all of these horrible things – and loads more, by the way – are possible, why are the numbers increasing so dramatically?

Simple economics. The US has seen a decrease in cocaine and Oxycontin use. These drugs have become more expensive and harder to get. More people are turning to heroin, the cheaper drug that can be purchased for only $9 a dose.

However, it isn’t only the poor picking this poison. Remember Cory Monteith from Glee? He died about three years ago from a heroin overdose, horrifying fans across the world. He just didn’t seem like the type.

The truth is, “the type” is everyone. Drugs don’t discriminate. For the wealthy, it is easier to stay on the drugs without being noticed. This is because the malnutrition associated with heroin addicts isn’t from the drug itself. It is from the lifestyle that goes with it, and a poor addict will choose drugs over food.

What can you do about this problem now?

As fellow blogger Patricia Byrne writes: “Stop the silence.”

When you notice symptoms, start the conversation. Don’t let the people around you suffer just because it might be embarrassing or a hard thing to confront.

Saving lives begins with you.

Further Reading:

Learn about who is using heroin in this USNews article.

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