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Category Archives: Forensic Anthropology

The Writers Forensics Blog: 100 Top Websites to Bookmark

The crew over at FornesicScienceDegrees.org have listed The Writers Forensics Blog as one of their Top 100 Websites to Bookmark, which they describe as a “list of great sites to present practical, real-world information on the subject.” Many great sources here.

Thanks. I’m flattered.

 

 

Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.

LISTENhttp://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2013/11/20/crime-and-science-radio–jon-jefferson-and-bill-bass

LINKS:

The Body Farm-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_farm

Tour The Body Farm: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/videos.html

Video Tour of The Body Farm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSDCiOW81mk

WBIR Interview: http://www.wbir.com/news/article/139066/190/Your-Stories-Dr-Bill

JeffersonBass Website: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/index.php

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales: http://www.amazon.com/Deaths-Acre-Inside-Legendary-Forensic/dp/0425198324

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass: http://www.metropulse.com/news/2009/feb/25/cult-forensics-expert-dr-bill-bass/

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1906569

Taphonomy-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taphonomy

 

Mummies: A New Method For Analysis

Mummified

 

After death, some corpses mummify rather than decay. This more likely will happen in very dry environments but can happen in almost any circumstance. If the corpse dessicates (dries out) more quickly than it decays, mummified remains are produced. These corpses are leathery, dark brown, and appear as if the skin has been “shrink wrapped” over the bones. They also can be very difficult to analyze.

For years, rehydrating finger pads with water, glycerin, and some other liquids, has allowed investigators to obtain fingerprints from mummified corpses. Now it seems that Alejandro Hernandez has found a way to do this with an entire mummified corpse. Very interesting.

 

 

Hickock and Smith: Beyond IN COLD BLOOD

Perry Smith (Top) and Dick Hickock

Perry Smith (Top) and Dick Hickock

Perry Smith and Dick Hickok murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas back in the 1950s. This gruesome killing of four innocent people, fueled by the duo’s belief that Mr. Clutter had a safe filled with money in his home (not true), rocked the citizens of Holcomb and indeed the nation. The story of the brutal murders caught the attention of Truman Capote who brilliantly rendered the story in his landmark book IN COLD BLOOD.

In Cold Blood

The killers were convicted and executed in a Kansas prison in 1965.

Flash forward to 2012. Investigators in Sarasota County, Florida believe that this dynamic duo might also have murdered the Walker family in 1959. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest this but the proof will come through DNA. Maybe.

Christine Walker was apparently raped before she was murdered and samples obtained from her have yielded DNA. This profile has been matched against several suspects but none have panned out. Now the police have exhumed the bodies of Hickock and Smith and taken bone fragments for DNA testing.

Stay tuned.

 
 

Richard III Found?

Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, died on August 22, 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field. His death wasn’t a pleasant one. Recently skeletal remains that might be those of the King have been unearthed from the ruins of Grey Friars Church in Leicester, the location where many believe Richard was buried.

 

The remains apparently show significant scoliosis, a bending of the spine that often raises one shoulder higher than the other. Historical documents, as well as the famous play by William Shakespeare, indicate that Richard was a “hunchback.” This condition is most often caused by kyphosis, a more forward curving of the spine, which is not the case with these remains. But the distinction probably wasn’t appreciated in 1485 so people who suffered either scoliosis or kyphosis were often termed “hunchback.”

How can researchers prove these are indeed Richard’s remains? The best bet is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down from generation to generation through the maternal line. This type of DNA doesn’t change often, mutating only about once every 6500 years, making it ideal for ancestry studies.

 

To employ this technique, they will need mtDNA from a known maternal descendent of Richard. And it seems they have located Londoner Michael Ibsen, the 17th great-grand nephew of Richard. His late mother, Joy Ibsen, was apparently a direct descendent of Richard’s eldest sister Anne. If true, and if the mtDNA matches, that would constitute fairly strong evidence that the remains are indeed those of Richard.

 

Q and A: If a Corpse Has Undergone Adipocere Formation, Can My ME Accurately Determine the Time of Death?

Q: In your blog you have talked about the formation of adipocere and explained the process. But what about how to estimate the time of death after a corpse has gone through the process of saponification? In my current project I have a body covered in adipocere. The victim is found 15 years after she was killed. Will it be possible for the detectives to determine exactly when she had been killed?

EE Giorgi, Los Alamos, NM

A: The short answer is no they would not be able to. At least not from the adipocere alone.

Adipocere formation is not common but it does indeed occur. This process is not one where the body is covered with adipocere but rather the body turns into this soap-like material. This can happen in a few weeks under the proper circumstances, which is usually a body buried in very acidic or alkaline environments. But it can happen under many circumstances.

 


Once it is formed the body remains fairly stable and can easily remain intact for 15 years or longer. But there is nothing about the adipocere itself that would give a timeline for when death occurred. Based only on that it could’ve been a few months ago or a few decades ago and the medical examiner has no tools for really distinguishing one from the other.

He would instead rely on other information such as when the person went missing. Let’s say the victim was 20 years old at the time of death. That would mean she would be 35 at the time the body was found. When the medical examiner, and perhaps a forensic anthropologist, examined the body they would know that the corpse was more consistent with someone in the 15 to 20 year old range than someone in the 35 to 40 year range and therefore could say that she had been dead for 15 years or so.

There might also be scene markers such as the clothing she was wearing or items found in her pockets, purse, or anything else found at the burial site. Some of these might suggest that she died shortly after she disappeared. Maybe a friend had just given her a check or a letter to mail and it had somehow survived in her purse. Most people deposit checks and post letters fairly soon rather than keeping them in their possession for weeks or months. So if these were found it would suggest she had died fairly soon after receiving them.

Maybe she was known to be wearing a certain shirt or jacket or other item of clothing at the time she disappeared and the same clothing was found on or around the corpse. This would be strong evidence that she died around the time she had disappeared simply because had she lived for a period of time after disappearance she would likely have changed clothes.

The ME could see all of this and make his best estimate that she probably died around the time she disappeared.

 

Guest Blogger: Crime Writers Inspired by Body Farms?

What is a body farm? It is a research facility that provides scientists with opportunities to study human decomposition in an array of settings. Body farms allow researchers to develop new forensic technologies. Body farm research is especially important to forensic anthropology, forensic science, and the field of law enforcement.

University of Tennessee Body Farm

The author Patricia Cornwell named one of her novels The Body Farm after she overheard local police officers use the nickname for the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Authors Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson have published a number of fictional mystery novels based on the body farm at the University of Tennessee. Also, the UT Farm has been featured in several television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The University of Tennessee Body Farm is utilized to train law enforcement officers in crime scene skills and techniques. Numerous hallmark scientific papers have been developed by research performed at the Body Farm. This information has been vital in powering forensic investigation into solving unsolved deaths.

 

At the University of Tennessee Body Farm, clothed and unclothed dead bodies are places in a variety of settings, such as in the shade, in sunny areas, in shallow graves, covered with brush, in water, and in houses, to provide insights into the decomposition of dead bodies in various conditions. Detailed observations along with records of the decomposition process are maintained, including the effects of insect activity. One objective is to reconstruct scenes where police find skeletal remains.

 

Body Farm Locations

Here is a list of some other body farms in the United States:

- Texas State University in San Marcos
- Western Carolina University in Cullowhee
- Sam Houston State University in Huntsville
- Southwestern Pennsylvania (used by researchers at California University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Criminological and Forensic Science)

Crime Writers

Crime writers may be able to visit some of the body farms or review body farm research. They’ll learn how bodies decay in different climates and how dead bodies are effected by rain, humidity, and temperature. Crime writers can also learn from research by entomologists who observe the ways a variety of insects feed on or use dead bodies in various stages of their life cycles. Based on the maturity of species, entomologists can determine approximately how long a person has been dead.

A possible crime novel scenario: To deceive the forensics experts about the time of death, the novel’s cruel murderer digs up the victim and swaps young bugs for mature bugs.

Another scenario: A crime novel murder suspect claims the dead haberdasher died in West Texas during Winter, however body farm researcher Mr. Stiff provides forensic evidence to refute the claim. Based on decay patterns, he determines the victim could have only have died in Northeast Montana in September.

Another scenario: After thoroughly reviewing body farm research, the clever killer Mr. Grant realizes high soil moisture and acidic soil speed up the decomposition process. He buries his victim in this type of soil; after a given amount of time he carefully removes the body, thoroughly cleans it off, and buries it in dry non-acidic soil. He sends a text message to alert the police of the body’s location. The somewhat knowledgeable forensic expert is fooled and determines the murder took place prior to Mr. Grant arriving in town. Mr. Grant is no longer the prime suspect for the crime and demands an apology.

So you see, body farm research can add unique twists to crime novels!

Brian Jenkins writes about careers in the criminal justice field, including crime scene investigation, for BrainTrack.com.

 

King Tut and Sickle Cell Disease

Few deaths have generated more interest and confusion than that of King Tut, the Egyptian boy king. Some say he was murdered, others say he died of this injury or that disease, and still other says that he had multiple genetic disorders that did him in. Truth is that no one knows.

Back on March 2, 2010, I posted a note about King Tut and the fact that researchers had found DNA from malaria organisms and from this concluded that the young king had died from this very common disease. Now a German team of investigators have come up with another theory: Sickle Cell Disease.

In my original blog, I discussed how Tut had bony deformities of his legs, predominantly manifested as some form of clubfoot, as well as a cleft palate and some evidence that he may have had Marfan’s Syndrome. I also pointed out that his murky lineage might have been resolved by this DNA testing. It is entirely possible that his father Akhenaten might have bore the young king with Tut’s aunt, Akhenaten’s own sister.

Now, Christian Timmann and Christian Meyer of the Bernhard Nocht Institute have postulated another cause of death. They believe he might have had sickle cell disease and that this might have led to his death. Sickle cell disease is common in those of African descent and occurs more likely when inbreeding is present. With Tut being the son of a mating between brother and sister, and if each of them carried the sickle cell gene, it would be possible for the young man to have inherited the homozygous or worst form of sickle cell anemia.

In sickle cell disease the abnormal red blood cells often clog up small blood vessels, which in turn can reduce blood and oxygen supply to various portions of the body, including the bones. Sufferers of this disease often end up with bone damage and deformities from this reduced blood supply. Could this explain the young man’s boney abnormalities? Possibly but it would be hard to indict this cause for either a club foot or a cleft palate. Still some of his other musculoskeletal problems could easily be related to sickle cell anemia.

This will require further investigation and indeed studies are underway so hopefully we will have more information down the road.

 

Tooth C-14 and the Age of a Corpse

Identifying unknown corpses is one of the most difficult things that the forensic pathologist and the forensic anthropologist must do. This is particularly true in situations of mass disaster where there are so many bodies to deal with or in circumstances where the body is severely decayed and there is little left to deal with but bones. The size, the sex, and the age of the skeletal remains narrow the possible identities. If the skeleton is intact, the size and the sex of the victim is usually easily ascertained but the exact age of the person is more difficult.

If the remains are those of a child it is usually easier since the development of the bones and teeth follow a pattern that is recognizable and more or less predictable. But once someone reaches adulthood this becomes more problematic. The teeth are often the best bet but once the wisdom teeth have completely erupted it is difficult to ascertain age. Hard to distinguish the skeletal remains of a 20 year old from a 35 year old.

Enter carbon-14. Carbon-14 is the radioactive isotope of carbon and is present in the residual of all organic materials. It has not been a useful forensic tool simply because it is too blunt and can only narrow down the age of the carbonaceous material to a century or so. So it is very good for determining if something is 500 years old or 5000 years old but not much help with a more recently deceased unidentified corpse.

A new technique has appeared that shows promise. A Swedish research team has begun looking at carbon 14 in tooth enamel and have found that it is highly accurate in determining the year of birth in anyone under 50 or 60 years of age. This technique uses the carbon-14 that was released into the atmosphere during the nuclear testing that was so common during the 1950s and 1960s. It’ll be interesting to follow this new technique and see if it really pans out to be as useful as hoped.

 

On This Day: Josef Mengele Identified

Few names in history evoke a more visceral response than that of Josef Mengele. If there can be such a thing, Mengele would easily win the award as “Worst Nazi.” After World War II, he escaped to South America where he disappeared for decades despite many ongoing searches for his identity and location. But on this day in 1992 all speculation regarding his rumored death were put to rest as his remains were conclusively identified.

Josef Mengele was born in Germany on March 16, 1911. A member of the military for many years, he was finally discharged in 1934 because of chronic kidney problems. Unfortunately this didn’t suppress his rise to power. In 1937 he was appointed as a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. I think the name of this Institute pretty much says it all.

In 1938 he received his medical degree from the University of Frankfurt and then reentered the Wehrmacht. He became very outspoken about his beliefs on Aryan superiority. He rose quickly up the ranks of the National Socialists and became a member of the elite Waffen SS. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 that he became the “Angel of Death.”

His experiments at Auschwitz became the stuff of nightmares. He immersed prisoners in the freezing waters until they died so that he could learn about the effects of hypothermia, presumably to help German pilots who were shot down in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. He experimented with eye color, to of course produce blue-eyed Aryans, by operating on and injecting various materials into the eyes of the children. His work on twins was equally atrocious.

As with many Nazis at the end of World War II, he escaped from Europe as Germany fell to the Russians and the Allies and found his way to South America, where he lived in several countries but predominantly in Brazil. He then disappeared. Many people, in particular the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, spent a great deal of time and effort tracking him. Sightings would occasionally pop up but each would evaporate almost as quickly as they appeared.

The big break came in 1985 when Lisolette Bossert confessed that Wolfgang Gerhard had drowned and that she had buried him in 1979. She also confessed that Wolfgang was actually Josef Mengele. The remains were exhumed and examined by forensic anthropologist in order to determine if this was indeed the skeletal remains of the infamous Angel of Death.

The initial investigations included x-rays, anthropological examinations, and reconstruction of the shattered skull. Using known dental records and photos of Mengele it was concluded that the remains were likely him but this could not be proven beyond a doubt. That all changed in 1992. Using DNA obtained from Mengele’s son and DNA obtained from the remains, forensic scientist proved once and for all that Wolfgang Gerhard was indeed Josef Mengele.

Adios Mother…….well you know the rest.

 
 
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