Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Features

Body of Evidence

By Tina Owen
An anthropology course focuses on matters of life, death, and whodunit.

At 11:30 on a sunny Friday morning, graduate assistant Dan Proctor heads into a small classroom in the lower level of Macbride Hall. Laden with a backpack and several bulging bags, he drapes an arm companionably over the bony shoulders of a full-size human skeleton.

Photos: Adpro Design Graduate student Dan Proctor helps a member of his forensic anthropology class identify human bones.

He wheels the plastic replica skeleton to a halt by the green chalkboard and then disgorges the contents of the bags onto a table. More plastic bones-vertebrae, ribs, and scapulae-tumble out in tangled heaps, like intricate puzzles waiting to be unlocked. As the legs of passersby stroll past the classroom windows, Proctor and his students embark on a 50-minute guided tour of the human spine.

Over the course of the semester, these 22 students will graduate from plastic bones to genuine remains as they unearth the mysteries of the human body. In "Forensic Anthropology and Crime Scene Investigation," they'll also learn how an academic discipline translates to a real world science-albeit one often misrepresented by movies and TV shows.

"In the real world, forensic investigation is far less glamorous but just as intellectually stimulating as it's depicted in shows like CSI," Proctor says. "It's not all Humvees, leather pants, and lattes."

According to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, the discipline represents "the application of the science of physical anthropology to the legal process...to identify human remains, and to assist in the detection of crime." Working as part of a team alongside pathologists, forensic dentists, and homicide investigators, forensic anthropologists help identify victims of crime or accidents, uncover evidence of foul play, and pinpoint the time of death.

Each year, staff at the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii-the world's largest forensic anthropology lab-help identify the remains of some 100 missing servicemen who died in combat zones from World War II to Operation Desert Storm. Elsewhere in the world, forensic anthropologists work in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo to identify victims of human rights atrocities.

Down in Knoxville, Tennessee, faculty members from the University of Tennessee run the famous "Body Farm." The three-acre farm collects valuable evidence about the impact of weather, insects, and the environment on decomposing donated bodies planted in ponds, in shallow graves, and in car trunks. Part lurid, part fascinating, it's little wonder that forensic anthropology seems tailor-made for books, TV series, and movies.

Proctor admits that the popularity of shows like CSI provides a convenient hook to attract students to his class. "Forensics is an aspect of the field of anthropology that's made it into popular culture. This course satisfies people's curiosity and also gives them an academic perspective on what forensic anthropologists do," he says. "An academic discipline should say what it's about, not just let TV and movies inform the public."

Once in the classroom, students soon discover how science can differ from Hollywood's oversimplified and dramatized depiction. Although it seems a very modern discipline—with its use of DNA and complex chemical analyses—forensic anthropology got its big break in 1849. That's when John Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard University, murdered a physician, Dr. George Parkman, to avoid repaying a debt. Webster dismembered Parkman, burned his head, and scattered his remains in various locations, but two Harvard anatomy professors were able to make a positive identification of the body by using dental records and determining age and stature from the bones.

Other landmark cases on the road to shows like CSI include the Leutgert Case of 1897, in which the owner of a Chicago sausage factory murdered his wife and used a vat of potash to render her entire body—except for a few bone fragments—into a "greasy jelly." Then there's Glasgow's 1935 "Jigsaw Murders," in which Dr. Buck Ruxton, a Scottish physician, killed and dismembered his wife and maid. In an early application of modern approaches, investigators identified the bodies by superimposing photos of the women over their shattered skulls.

Appetites for knowledge sufficiently whetted by these gory history lessons, Proctor's students knuckle down to understanding the foundation of human anatomy. In later sessions, they'll explore the grim details of insects' contributions to postmortem decay, the effect of blunt trauma on the skeleton, and bullets' impact on soft tissue. Guest speakers from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics will provide insights into careers as pathologists and medical examiners.

But for now, they turn their attention to the plastic skeleton. In a tough three-week, nine-session slog, they have to learn the names, shapes, features, and landmarks of all the major bones in the human body. With a "bone quiz" and a couple of case study essays looming before them, students resort to a tried-and-tested approach: memorize, memorize, memorize.

Jennifer Larson, a history/anthropology junior from Ankeny, is taken aback by the overwhelming amount of material in this osteology section of the course. "It certainly makes me more aware of the structure of the body and what it takes to move around on a daily basis," she says. "It's amazing how we're put together."

"This class certainly makes me more aware of the structure of the body and what it takes to move around on a daily basis. It's amazing how we're put together." student Jennifer Larson

The students poring over these replica bones represent a range of liberal arts disciplines. Even if none of them go on to careers in forensic anthropology, they'll have a new perspective on the science and the way it's portrayed in popular culture. As they delve more deeply into the subject, these undergraduates realize that—contrary to the expectations raised by shows like CSI, where even the most bizarre mystery wraps up neatly in under 60 minutes—real-world forensics is an imperfect discipline, often denoted by shades of gray rather than absolute black-and-white.

Time and cause of death often can't be pinpointed with the deadeye accuracy displayed by fictitious investigators. Lack of soft tissue on facial bones can hinder identification efforts, while even a complete skeleton can't offer clues about eye color or hair texture.

"This class shows that science doesn't have all the answers. And, even if it did, it would still be nothing without humans to interpret it," says Clayton Schuneman, an anthropology senior from Iowa City who plans a career in forensic anthropology. "And that's always where a lot of the problems lie."

A good basic knowledge of human anatomy does provide some answers, though. A wider pelvis usually indicates a woman, more pronounced brow ridges point towards a man, and tooth eruptions can determine the age of a child. "Forensic anthropologists look for the presence or absence of such characteristics," says Proctor, "and then they try to make a decision regarding the likelihood of a person's age, gender, and race."

While crime investigators are often eager to determine a victim's race to help them crack a case, anthropologists tread warily in this area. In 1998, the American Association of Anthropology issued a statement on race, saying that "human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups.... Physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them."

As Proctor explains, "Combinations of certain facial features might appear more often in some population groups than others, but there's much room for error because populations overlap."

The course isn't just tough in terms of the amount of memorization required; it also deals with what the syllabus warns upfront are "mature subjects." In the last few sessions, students examine fairly graphic photos of postmortem bodies and watch an autopsy video-although they can opt out of these sessions. "The idea isn't to gross them out," says Proctor, "but to give them a realistic idea of what happens to a human body after death."

Throughout, he stresses the one crucial lesson that motivates forensic anthropologists as they assess shattered and torn flesh and bones: "It's important to remember that the remains we're trying to identify were people who were often the victims of crimes or accidents."

In this class, students gain more than a working knowledge of the human body, its weaknesses, and its ultimate fate. They learn a lesson in life, as well as death.