Texas ID Made: Sarah Gaitan

After four months, a name has been given to the set of skeletal remains that were found in a farmer’s field in Texas: Sarah Gaitan.

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Sarah Gaitan, 24, went missing in October 2015. (Original Source)

The 24-year-old mother of four was missing since October 2015. She was from San Antonio, and the field she was found in is located in Marion County.

Last time we checked in on the case, officials were still looking through local missing persons and searching the field for more evidence. This process took weeks because the field was expansive and, as the farmer worked his land, more items were discovered.

With the help of Dr. Daniel Wescott from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, investigators were able to use the skeletal analysis and dental records to make this identification.

They have succeeded in the most important part of these types of investigations – giving a name to the nameless, helping the lost find their way home. While it is a tragedy that Gaitan’s four children are without a mother, the family is better off with the closure of knowing where she is.


ORIGINAL NEWS CAST: Family fears for missing woman


The investigation, however, is far from over. Cause of death is still to be determined as well as how her remains ended up in a field more than 30 miles away to begin with. Authorities have not come public about whether or not there was foul play involved, and they are still seeking information.

 

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Is FARO’s ScanArm the future of forensic 3D imaging?

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FARO.com

FARO is the leading brand in 3D measurement technology used in factory work, public safety and now forensic anthropology. The FARO® Forensic ScanArm solution was designed specifically for criminal investigations.

When used with 3D Systems Geomagic® software, the ScanArm allows scientists a noncontact way to scan items of forensic interest in high resolution. It is armed with blue laser technology, which boasts noise-free scanning in high detail at high speeds.

According to the website, it is easily portable. So, it isn’t just some piece of expensive sitting equipment. Theoretically, you could get the scan done before you even take the remains or whatever items to the laboratory.

Despite those claims, it might not be the ideal field equipment the company hoped it would be:

However, this doesn’t take away from all the good things about the equipment.

The interface is designed so that people without 3D imaging experience should be able to navigate it. With 3D imaging being a newer discipline and with its rapid technological advancement, this is important. One day, scientists will probably be able to use 3D scanning devices as easily as they can use a laptop. For now, the transition is still underway, and easy-to-use interfaces will be very helpful for both the people making the scans and the ones making the scanners.

We talked about 3D copies of skulls for facial recognition in another post. The ScanArm bears the same significance as it means to enable scientists to make these copies with the newest technology and be able to work with sturdy evidence. That is, to make identifications without damaging fragile human remains or other evidence.

“By listening to our rapidly growing base of Public Safety – Forensics customers, we have learned that thoroughly measuring and analyzing forensic evidence is of paramount importance. Our non-contact measurement tools allow forensic labs to meet this requirement while minimizing the risk of damaging the evidence. It is now possible to produce accurate and permanent 3D digital documentation of evidence from which measurements can be taken and analysis can be performed days or even decades later…” –Joe Arezone, Chief Commercial Officer of FARO

The key here is “noncontact.” According to this statement, it is no longer necessary to handle the remains or risk damaging them. Further, there are no sprays necessary for the laser to scan, so there is no apparent risk for contamination.

The ScanArm isn’t only to aid forensic anthropologists, however. It is designed for crime labs to create a digital archive of evidence to store for years to come as well as to use in court presentations. Medical examiners can use the ScanArm to digitally collect traumatic injuries quickly.

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FARO.com

Another key is the speed with which these operations can be handled. Officials desire forensic investigations to be handled with care, but mostly with speed. And it is even worse when forensic anthropology and archaeology is a component of the investigation. It is hard work. If the ScanArm hopes to be successful, it will need to do the work accurately without taking away time from an already quickly ticking clock.

I can’t wait to see how else scientists will think to use the ScanArm and if it will live up to the high claims made by FARO.

Click here to learn more about the ScanArm and to schedule a personalized web demonstration.

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FARO.com

 

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Don’t cry over spilled milk

I’ve come across some research this past week about calcium and its relationship with our bone health.

Apparently, I was not wrong to assert that “we all know how important it is to drink our milk to allow for strong bones,” but I was dead wrong to assume we all know what we are talking about.

I came across a video on Facebook this week:

At first, I couldn’t believe it myself. Since I was in elementary school, I can remember my doctors, teachers, family and the television telling me how important milk was for the calcium in it.

But drinking cow’s milk is not essential to human bone health.

Okay, I will give you a second to let that sink in.

Now, I didn’t just take the word of the Vox video. I don’t believe everything I see on the internet. I looked up scientific studies to either support or deny the claim in bold. The most recent study I found was from last year, and it concluded that there is no correlation between the consumption of milk and the risk of bone fracture. (You can read it in full here.)

This isn’t to say milk doesn’t contribute to health in any way at all. Claims that milk is detrimental to bone health are unfounded. There are benefits.

“…it is a good source of high biological value proteins with polyvalent roles in immune function, as well as nutrient transport and absorption and important vitamins and essential minerals.” -Paula C. Pereira

But it isn’t as important as the government and big dairy has made it out to be. So, if you aren’t a fan of milk, it’s alright. There are better ways to get your calcium and other ways to get the same benefits from other foods.

 

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Beyond Decomposition: The use of ‘body farms’ in research

Imagine this: You are a scientist at a University that has finally approved your request to do outdoor forensic research using real human remains. The first few unclaimed bodies are shipped to you, a present from the local morgue.

You take each body and set them under certain conditions. One is put head first into a body of water, legs resting on land. Another is secured under a cage in direct sunlight, free from disturbances from animals. The last one is nude and covered with shrubbery and dark plastic.

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Every day, you check on the bodies to see how the decomposition is being affected by the varying conditions. You stick with your research through the bloating and all. The smell of rotting human flesh has become almost normal.

Sounds like a job for a character in a horror movie, right?

Since 1981, this has been a very real scenario for forensic anthropology faculty and students. The first outdoor research center for forensic taphonomic processes was opened by anthropologist Dr. William Bass at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Today in the U.S., there are six operational facilities:

Colloquially, these facilities are referred to as body farms, although some view the term as disrespectful.

“People like me intended no irreverence when we called it that, for no one respects the dead more than those of us who work with them and hear their silent stories.  The purpose is to help the living. That was the point when The Body Farm came into being more than twenty years before, when scientists got determined to learn more about time of death.  On any given day its several wooded acres held dozens of bodies in varying stages of decomposition. Research projects had brought me here periodically over the years, and though I would never be perfect in determining time of death, I had gotten better.” -Patricia Cornwell, The Body Farm (1994)

Not only do Cornwell’s words address the issue of respect toward the dead, they als0 provide an example of the importance of these research facilities in improving forensic skill.

The research done at body farms in becoming increasingly essential to the furthering of knowledge about different rates of decomposition, insect activity and animal scavenging. Projects can range from how climate and environment affect decomposition to how bodies react to being frozen.

The data from such research an assist forensic experts in real-life investigations in establishing traits like postmortem interval, or the time that’s passed since a person’s death. Body farms also serve other functions such as training centers for forensic anthropology students, law enforcement and cadaver dogs.

So far, the only body farms are located within the U.S.The problem with this is the research tends to be climate-specific. U.S. states and countries without body farms don’t have the taphonomic data for their region. This is why it is so important for the public in other countries to be educated about forensic research, to garner support for the building of such facilities abroad.

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Australia, near the new facility. (Original Source)

The first one outside of the U.S. will most likely be located in Australia at the University of Technology, Syndey. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, as it will be called, will be the first step in catching up other parts of the world with this type of forensic advancement.

The United Kingdom is also behind with forensic anthropological research. In the UK, pigs are being used in taphonomic pursuits. Unfortunately, the variability of humans makes the research on pigs less meaningful or applicable.

The UK is in need of a outdoor human body farm – but there are a lot of obstacles before that can happen. Citizens are expressing concern about where human research facilities will be located and how it will affect them. There isn’t the same opportunity for isolation of a facility there as in the States. Then, there’s funding and obtaining the bodies.

Who knows when these obstacles will be overcome? Until the conditions are met and the UK and other countries can move forward in this process, the potential to expand the breadth of scientific research for the sake of research as well as for application in medicolegal cases is at a halt.

 

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What’s new in facial reconstruction?

At times, forensic investigators have a hard enough time identifying human remains with most of the flesh present. So what happens when the body is mostly or fully skeletonized?

A forensic artist uses the skull and scientific parameters to reconstruct the face of the individual. This is used to compare with missing persons and try to identify them. Since the discipline began, drawings and models using the skull have been used in the process, and there are problems with these practices.

The biggest problem is the subjectivity of the forensic artists, which can also lead to unidentified individuals never being identified because some features can’t be measured osteologically.

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A facial reconstruction of Gail Matthews, a victim of the Green River Killer. Her lips were unique and unable to be properly estimated due to decomposition.

3D printing is transforming forensic science and biological anthropology and for the better. Scientists use CT and MRI scans as well as other medical imaging techniques. Using this data, they are able to produce 3D models of bones from a 3D printer. The anatomically correct models are able to show trauma on the bones.

Skeletal remains are not usually entered into evidence in a court of law because it is thought to be too disturbing. These models eliminate the traumatic experience of seeing the dead person’s actual remains. To handle bones in the courtroom can cause degradation to them, destroying evidence. With 3D printing, this doesn’t happen.

This new technology is still being developed and perfected by scientists every day. The future will see increasing applications of forensically applied medical procedures. These applications will become standardized and more accurate over time, eliminating most of the subjectivity that compromises some cases.

 

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Texas Case Update: Catching up with investigators

Last week, we heard about the set of mystery remains that were found in a field in Texas in March. I had a chance to catch up with officials on the case to talk about how a real investigation is conducted and clarify some inconsistent news reports about the case.

“Please understand why law enforcement is sometimes reluctant to work with the media,” McBride said. “The frustrating part of using the media is that sometimes they don’t report what we give them accurately. In any (media) report, there is usually something that is inaccurate, lost in translation or just sounds better to the reporter, but has lost context because it was changed. I know it’s not done with malicious intent, but this is the result.”

KSAT Antonio reported a range of heights for the individual and The Seguin Gazette reported an exact height of 5’2”. Those sources also had inconsistent information about the amount of time the individual has been in the field, which is less than two years and more than one month. These inconsistencies were mostly due to the change of information as it became available.

Investigator Sgt. Zachary McBride of the Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the woman’s height is estimated to be between 5’0” and 5’6”, while the preliminary report’s minimum height was 4’11”. Five-foot-two inches is the middle data point for the height range.

Before the height was ever determined, however, a lot went into the location of the skeleton.

“While the majority of the bones were spread over the field due to plowing activity, the skull was found mostly intact with only the left part of the maxilla missing,” McBride said. “This was recovered a week later and fit perfectly into the missing part of the skull.”

The department, through the Texas Rangers, will use a 3-D printed copy of the skull in order to reconstruct the face of this unidentified female. An artist from the Department of Public Safety will undertake the task of reconstructing the face.

In addition to the identification of the remains, the department is tasked with compiling evidence and admissible witness and suspect statements.

“We have recovered all the evidence we can locate,” McBride said. “There are no known witnesses (the neighboring areas have been canvassed) and of course no known suspect. The investigation can really only begin once we know our victim’s identity and use a time line from when she was last seen to build the investigation from that point.”

Original Source

Sgt. McBride is working with Dr. Daniel Wescott at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.

Dr. Wescott and the other investigators had to search for and map evidence, transport the remains to the laboratory and do a full work-up. This means they conducted a biological profile (sex, ancestry, age, etc.), documented dentition and examined the bones for trauma and taphonomic damage, which includes preservation and signs animal scavenging. This information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs database. Lastly, DNA samples were sent to be analyzed in hopes of getting a match.

The role of the forensic scientist isn’t complete at this point.

“We also will aid law enforcement in the exclusion of individuals or the positive identification of the person,” Wescott said.

When asked about the possibility the remains belonged to an undocumented individual, whether there was clothing or other effects found in the field, and what the cause of death was, officials refrained from answering – and for good reason.

“The answer to those questions are controlled information that we would use to test the truthfulness of a witness or suspect if we ever interview them,” McBride said. “I have experienced cases where witnesses will intentionally lie or just misremember details. I have had suspects give ‘false confessions,’ for whatever reason. If the witness or suspect is able to correctly answer these questions you are asking without the answer being in the public domain, it lends credibility to their statement.”

For this reason, there is information for cases like these that is limited to the investigators and involved parties. Some leads were ruled out using dental records against local missing persons. This ongoing investigation will continue to pursue local missing persons.

“In the end, it will be DNA and/or dental records that identify our victim,” McBride said.

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ForAnth News Alert #3

On March 2, human remains were found in a farmer’s field near Marion, Texas.

The skeletal remains were found by a farmer, who was on a tractor at the time. When he got out of the vehicle to see what he hit, a human skull stared back at him, prompting him to call the Guadalupe County Sherriff’s Department.

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Seguin Gazette

Throughout the month, the investigators and officials on the case recovered a large amount of the skeleton on or near the field (pictured left), which initial analysis describes as an adult Hispanic or white female between the ages of 25 to 40 years old and between 5’0″ and 5’6″ tall.

Because the suspicious nature of this death, investigators are looking at any signs that would indicate foul play. The remains have been in the field anywhere from six months to two years.

Investigator Sgt. Zachary McBride told reporters of the Seguin Gazette there is a possibility the deceased is not a murder victim, but a transient who died in the field. Because there is the possibility of murder, however, it is a top priority for the investigators.

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So far, there have been no hits from local missing individuals, so the county will expand their search. The local pool of missing individuals don’t share the skeleton’s height and age range. Sgt. McBride said investigators were “not convinced this is a local person.”

The next steps will be to analyze the bones for DNA and to compare the teeth with dental records from different databases.

Still, it will be the courage of people in the community to come forward with information that will be invaluable in identifying the set of remains.

“We know that this is somebody’s family member, somebody’s baby girl, somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter. People out there are going to be able to point us in the right direction to figure out who this lady is and find out how she died,” McBride said in an interview with KSAT Antonio.

Hopefully, investigators and local citizens will work together to discover her identity, as well as the many other unanswered questions this case brings into focus.

**I’ve contacted Sgt. McBride. Stay tuned for updates about the case.**

 

 

 

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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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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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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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