ForAnth News Alert #2

This week, a story was published by Atlas Obscura that talks about the science behind why forensic anthropologists want to bury bodies around Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo resigned because of how stressful the extreme under-staffing of his department was. Because of financial issues, the county’s morgue has 180 sets of human remains backing up the work down at the morgue.

The backlog of remains has always been an issue for the county due to the massive volume of cases it receives. More than 60,000 deaths need to be processed each year. The county’s medical examiners are required to discover the details surrounding all violent and sudden deaths.

Basically, there is a whole lot of work and not a whole lot of staff or financial support. So, what can be done about this?


 

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A solution could be to create a new body farm program for research. Implementing this sort of program would allow forensic anthropologists to research human decomposition specifically in the climate of Southern California.

If this was developed in LA County, it would be the seventh facility to operate in the United States.

“At a time when forensic evidence in the courtroom weighs heavily on the outcome of a case, the legitimacy of data and dexterity with which law enforcement employs it is paramount. Body farm research, then, is a valuable intermediary between forensic anthropology studies and law enforcement application, providing protocol for the standardization of supporting data to assist in live casework.”-Emma Kemp, writer

This would also help out the local morgue because it would give the people of the county another option for donating their bodies to science. The current pool of options is severely limited.

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All scientists are atheists, duh…

According to new research, the battle between science and religion isn’t only socially created. It’s a battle that’s going on in each of our brains.

Basically, one side of the brain is more emphatic while the other side is analytical. When using one of these networks, the other is lessened.

The study suggests a positive correlation with religion and empathy and well as with science and critical thinking. That is, religious people tend to think with empathy, which suppresses the ability to be analytical. Alternately, scientific minds think more critically, which suppresses the ability to empathize.

Statistically, scientists attend religious services almost as much as the general population. Most are some denomination of Christianity.

How can this possibly be? Doesn’t that study show that you can’t be empathetic AND analytical?

Actually, it just means that when you are practicing religion, you’re emphatic and not critically thinking. And it means when you are doing science, your brain shuts off that emotional side and allows you to focus on the data. The way our brains work actually helps us be religious and be scientists!

Interestingly enough, the more religious- or scientific-minded one is, the less they perceive a conflict between science and religion.

Anthropology is by its origins a secular discipline. It’s always striven to become the best it can be scientifically. This is necessary of all science. It should be separated from bias associated with religion, absolutely.

But being a scientist shouldn’t disqualify you from continuing or entering into a relationship with God, the Universe, Creator, etc., and being religious shouldn’t make you fear knowledge. This study shows us that these seemingly conflicting positions can actually coexist in harmony.

Personally, I don’t think believing in evolution means there is no God. I’ve never understood this argument. But then again, I’ve never irrationally believed the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Even if you are a Christian and you believe God created man, could evolution not be the vehicle through which He created us?

The disciplines of science and religion have many similar basic rules. There is a certain degree of faith when it comes to science. Both religion and science cannot be 100% proven – they are both full of theories – and both religious and scientific people have to take these theories on faith. The more evidence there is, the stronger the belief in that theory. Sometimes a theory will need to be reformulated based on the most current evidence.

When I first started seeing the world through scientific eyes, I questioned my spirituality. I so feared a life that meant nothing and a death that meant the end. I struggled to see how I could believe in science and believe in an afterlife or a Creator.

But when I look and see all the discoveries we make every day and think about the multitudes of information we have yet to unlock, the mystery of this perfect universe becomes clear.

There is so much we do not yet know, and both science and religion can work together to further human progress.

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Seeing evolution in action

Vestigial structures are features on the body that don’t have a purpose in the current form of an organism in a species.

The features start out as important players in the functioning of an organism. As natural selection occurs over time and the population of a species changes, the importance of those features phases out. Eventually, they become useless to the species.

Often, these features will be completely eradicated from a lineage. However, many of these structures stick around the gene pool, appearing within populations without serving any function. These are vestigial.

How do vestigial structures show proof of evolution?

Many of the structures are homologous, or appear the same, in other organisms.

This shows common descent between organisms. Common descent is a theory that says all organisms descend from a common ancestor. Besides analysis of DNA, homologous and vestigial structures give the non-scientific community direct, visible evidence of the evolutionary process.

This recent video from Vox shows modern human vestigiality that you can observe right now on your own body!

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READ WARNING: Lessons From Forensic Anthropology Camp

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When I was in high school, I was obsessed with forensic science. There was something sexy about scientifically investigating death, especially since my firsthand knowledge was episodes of CSI and online modules at school like “The Murder at the Pizza Party” (no joke!).

Then, the more I researched murders and dead bodies, the less I thought I would be able to handle it. So, I figured since forensic anthropologists study bones, I could do that. I could work with skeletal remains. Forensic anthropologists don’t work with flesh, right? RIGHT?

Wrong. This is something I learned the hard way.

If you are thinking about being a forensic anthropologist, I recommend getting an internship or field experience before committing to graduate school. Besides the fact that it’s an extremely tough business to get into, you have to deal with intensely pressured situations, inadequate lab equipment (it’s not like what you see on Bones), and grisly scenes that include flesh.

Most of my field school experience was spent digging up unidentified human remains. That part was fine. It was the day at the morgue that changed everything.

First, we saw the area of the morgue where the freshly dead lay, naked and vulnerable. I’m afraid of death as it is (isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?) and seeing the reality of what happens when you die truly scarred me.

Everything just felt so impersonal – which is how it has to be for the medical examiners to keep their sanity.They even had screens with puppies and cute stuff on it to help with that.

The first dead body I saw was especially gruesome. It was a suicide. And it was hit by a train. And it wasn’t recognizable as the man it used to be. I keep saying it, but I have a good reason.

I looked straight into the person’s eyes. It hurt me to do this. I should never have looked. Because there was nothing there. It felt so empty. That’s what terrified me. No soul, no semblance of what makes us what we are. The visual was bad, yes, but our meat suits aren’t our essence. He didn’t have an essence – and that shook me to my core.

After trying to get that out of my head, we stopped for a group photo. Almost everyone’s smiling in it…but I’m just looking ahead, trying not to cry.


 

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Then, it was time for maceration. Yay.

Maceration is part of the forensic anthropologist’s listed duties in America. (In the UK, this isn’t the case.) Maceration, for those of you who don’t know, is when you soften and break down skin and flesh to get to the bones.

It’s a very important step in a lot of cases where an individual is unknown. Once the flesh is out of the way, the bones can speak to us, revealing secrets that can lead to identification, cause of death, age, sex, ancestry and more. It can be done using flesh-eating insects, emulsifying agents and more traditional methods.

In our case, we had boiling pots of water, cases of unidentified body part samples and sophisticated tools like toothbrushes. The part I had to work on was a femur – which was one of the least grisly parts present. Around me, people worked on skulls and other parts that were already mostly fleshless – to start off with.

I put my femur into the pot of boiling water. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was like rotten Thanksgiving turkey…or like pork ribs that were left to mold on your stove for weeks. It was the smell of a decaying human being cooking.

I didn’t even make it to the point where I was going to scrape the flesh off with our “sophisticated” array of tools. I couldn’t do it. I was so nauseous. Also, I was totally freaked out because I sat in the middle of the outdoor area we were in, and as I looked around, my fellow students were sitting with buckets of water, brushes and people parts, just going at it, getting down to the bone.

This isn’t to say this wasn’t traumatizing for them, either. Somehow, though, they were stronger than me. They were able to compartmentalize what they were doing and tuck it away (mostly) as science. But, make no mistake, we all needed a drink at the end of that day.

I’m happy I didn’t stick around for more, even though I desperately wanted to be cut out for this job. I heard from others that they worked on a fully fleshed foot. They described the sound of the breaking toes and defleshing the section. Even what I imagined scarred me. Screw actually being around for it!

I beat myself up about “chickening out” on this for a while. I wished I was stronger. I wished I could look at it medically. But, for me, it was dehumanizing. And, at the end of the day, I decided if I had to lose some of my humanity, some of what makes me who I am, that it wasn’t worth it.

My mentor also helped me get over myself and made me realize I was courageous and that now I wouldn’t be wasting time and money furthering my education in a field I wasn’t cut out for.

These were all valuable, necessary lessons. Necessary pain.

Working in the field and digging up skeletons was great. There are so many other things I learned, but they aren’t necessary for the point of this entry. Honestly, I’ve never had as much fun in my life than when I was sweating under the hot California sun digging up John and Jane Does. It’s truly fascinating, and it revealed to me what I want to do in the future.

I want to work with bonesjust bones.

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Applying social construct theory: Race in the News

This week, we talked about social constructs and why they matter. Just yesterday, a story was published about the social construct of race – so we get to apply some of our learning.

Students in the medical field are taught to “embrace racial stereotypes,” linking races to specific diagnoses. For example, sickle cell anemia is thought of as a black disease.

Medical doctors are trained as just that. Most don’t have a background in sociology or anthropology.

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“Right now, students are learning an inaccurate and unscientific definition of race…It’s simply not true that human beings are naturally divided into genetically distinct races,” – Dorothy Roberts, sociology professor and co-author on recent race research.

This is the root of significant issues in modern medicine. Race-based medicine is widely accepted. It is very much the norm.

The article goes on to talk about “White Coats for Black Lives,” which came from the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a group where medical students fight for education about racial justice.

This is a great start to changing medical attitudes toward race. But I think this is also a great opportunity for sociologists and anthropologists to create a bridge with the world of medicine, to infuse medical learning with more holistic human understanding.

Pushing for more racial justice education is great, but if we can bridge this gap in ideology and change the roots of inaccurate belief – that would be real change.

This isn’t to say ethnicity doesn’t play any part in health. It is more likely for African-Americans to have sickle-cell anemia. But it also occurs abundantly in populations of India, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Saudi Arabia.

However, understanding that it isn’t a “black disease” is important. Some could say they understand that, but the term “black disease” is just a harmless colloquialism.

To that, I say, language is not harmless. It shapes our social understanding and attitudes.


“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences,” Roberts said. “It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.” (from statnews.com)


Throwing around terms like “black disease” and “white disease” is not only another form of institutional segregation, but it is also harmful to giving unbiased diagnoses.

This is especially disconcerting considering misdiagnosis is said to happen to every American at least once in their lifetime and is the top cause of malpractice suits.

There aren’t many in the medical community who understand social constructionism, especially as it applies to race. It’s time to restructure “modern medicine,” which to me seems a bit archaic in its racial ideology (among other things).

Let’s move forward to create, instead of a machine, a human mechanism truly worthy of modern living.

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(Very) Basic Social Constructionism for Dummies

We’ve previously discussed social constructs such as race and gender on this blog. While I’ve briefly introduced this concept, I want to make it easier for readers who don’t have a background in anthropology or sociology to understand what this means with as little jargon as possible.

I will not go any further than what’s necessary for the bounds of The Telltale Bones. The deeper it gets, the more theoretical (aka complicated) it gets and doesn’t further our purposes here.

To understand this theory, we should first understand where it came from. Social constructionism was born out of symbolic interactionism, which simply means people attach meanings to the things around them and behave based on those meanings, which are bred from social interaction.

In 1966, “The Social Construction of Reality” was published, introducing the concept to the public. In 40+ years, much research was conducted within this framework, that people create the sociocultural worlds around them and the reverse. In the simplest terms, social reality is not objective and there are more than one legitimate reality.

This doesn’t mean there are no such things as facts. If you are born with male anatomy, you were born with the sex of a male, and your skeleton will always reflect it. This is a fact. However, socially, you may identify as a female and you have the power to construct your reality this way. Others around you may not be able to accept this reality because it contradicts the one they have created and the rules they have constructed. This is where social conflict occurs.

Now, that we understand this, we can begin to understand all the social and cultural factors that exist between all sets of reality: religion, race, gender, beauty, games, social class and status, virginity, sexuality  – it’s all constructed individually and culturally.

Even further, it is understandable how these contradictions on individual and cultural levels can lead to conflicts within small-scale conversations all the way up to national and international conflicts and wars.

I believe if more people understood how fluid and changing these concepts truly are, we would be well on our way to a more peaceful and tolerant world.

Personally, the realization of this concept changed my rigid worldview because it helped me understand that I am in charge of changing my own reality, and it’s a realization that has also helped me change how I look at everyday life. I am not afraid to challenge my own beliefs.

We each hold immense power and the responsibility to change and progress – to construct a better, new reality that has room in it for everyone.

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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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