Fieldwork Comes to an End

Hello anthropologists,

I know it has been a while since my last post, and there is more to catch up on than I could ever cover. But I can say that I have officially finished my fieldwork in Guatemala now. It was nothing like I expected it to be, so many things went wrong I don’t know where to begin. But some things went right, thankfully enough things that I can move forward with my thesis. In the end, had everything gone the way it was supposed to I wouldn’t have discovered the stories I did–stories that are arguably more urgent than the stories I sought in the beginning. And I suppose that’s how most fieldwork happens, you don’t really know what questions to ask until you’re in the thick of it.

I went to Guatemala originally with the intention of studying the effectiveness of the reconciliation process after their civil war. After coming up against more roadblocks than I could imagine, it became clear that there is something deeply wrong with the forensic anthropological efforts happening in Guatemala, especially in how these efforts are influencing contemporary impunity for those who commit gang related violence. None of this is cheerful stuff, but it’s necessary if anthropologists are to understand the influences on and the consequences of their involvement.

It all comes back around to theory, how do we acknowledge and account for our bias when doing anthropology? How do we ensure the best outcome for the greatest number of people, without losing sight of the bigger picture?

I paid a visit to the paupers’ cemetery in Guatemala City to find information on a contact’s missing father. It was stifling hot and a fine, red dust settled on our trainers as we walked down the sandy loam pathways. We were given hurried directions by a vendor set up along the side of the road, hawking blank tombstones for the recently bereaved. He pointed and said we needed to walk down to the very end if we wanted to see the XXX cemetery. This is the resting place of the unidentified in Guatemala City, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I thought that the XXX cemetery was named so because the graves were marked with ‘XXX’ since the identities were unknown, I also thought that it would be a cemetery. But as I soon came to realise, the XXX referred to the three crosses that stood sentry at its mouth. All of the graves–save a special few–were unmarked, abandoned, and accumulating garbage. This was not a cemetery either, this was a boneyard. Human remains were emerging from that sandy loam of the pathway. I stood over a human talus (ankle), and began to brush the excess dirt away before I remembered myself. I had no legal or ethical right to move or even touch this bone, whatever obligation I felt toward the remains had to be abandoned for my own safety. I stood and as I walked away I began to weep, for that talus emerging from the ground belonged to a person whose family searched for them, it belonged to someone who died alone and nameless. That talus could have even belonged to my contact’s father–she had her back to me now as she looked over the rows of fresh graves. When she turned I saw that she was weeping too.

 

What did she or I gain from this visit? Certainly not answers, rather more questions and mounting frustration at the ineptitude and cruelty of her situation.

I didn’t conduct nearly as much work in Guatemala as I had wanted to, but now my work must turn to the institutions that enable the ongoing violence and impunity. And not just in Guatemala, but in all the countries scrambling through the reconciliation process.

I will be presenting on my experiences in Guatemala at the SARG seminar on May 22nd at Durham University.

As always, send me any questions through the contact page

Question re: Sticks and Stones

A good friend of mine, Nicole, has asked a great question about the post Sticks and Stones: Basics of Skeletal Trauma.

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She says: “Love this! Also if this is the superior view would you say that the trauma occurred along any suture lines? Also out of curiosity, which bone of the skull is pictured?”

Thanks for the question, Nicole! This gives me a great opportunity to talk a little bit about the anatomy of the skull.

As the original picture only shows a bit of the skull, I’ll bring in my lovely assistant!

Here is Stan the Standard Scientific Skeleton. And here is the top of Stan’s head.

You can see that this image of Stan’s head corresponds to the left side of the image above Nicole’s question.  I’ll just take the top of Stan’s head off to make it easier to handle.

Cool. If you look carefully, you’ll see something on Stan’s skull that you can’t see on original skull. Those squiggly lines are called sutures. These sutures connect the different bones of the skull. Yes, the skull contains multiple bones! When we’re born, in order to fit through the birth canal and then give our brains enough room to grow, our skulls are divided into many different pieces. As we get older, these bones grow and then fuse at these suture lines. This is why babies have soft spots, or what anthropologists call fontanelles. Their skulls aren’t fused yet.

Nicole wants to know if the trauma on the first skull involved these sutures, and which bones of the skull are pictured.

The bones of the superior aspect of the skull are as follows:

One frontal bone (pictured pointing downwards here), two parietal bones, and the top bit of the occipital bone.

The angle of the trauma to the first skull looks approximately this. The frontal bone is now facing upwards.

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As you can see, there are two sutures involved. The vertical suture, called the saggital suture, is cut transversely.  The horizontal suture, called the coronal suture, is impacted on the right.

But why are the sutures visible on Stan and not the first skull?  Well there are two options.

As we get older the sutures fuse, but it doesn’t just end there! Often the sutures will begin to fade and become obliterated. Sometimes anthropologists will use the level of fading to establish age at death. Buuuuut they shouldn’t. Sometimes the sutures don’t fade at all, and they certainly never fade on a predictable timeline.

The second option might be that the surface of the bone is poorly preserved.

As I don’t currently have access to the bone in question, I can’t confirm, but looking at the picture I suspect it’s a mix of both.

Thanks Nicole!

Sticks and Stones: Basics of Skeletal Trauma

What you’re looking at above is the superior aspect of a human cranium, i.e. the top of someone’s head.

If your first thought was ‘holy hell, what happened to that poor guy?’ well done. You have the makings of a human osteologist.  The answer is what forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists call sharp force trauma, or when a sharp object injures tissue.  This unfortunate fellow was most likely the victim of a broadsword attack.

There are several types of trauma that we can see in human bone. When the injury is caused by a blunt object we call it blunt force trauma.  When the injury is caused by a projectile, like a bullet, we call it projectile trauma.  Pretty self explanatory.

Trauma is classified as antemortem (before death), perimortem (at the time of death), or postmortem (after death).  We can tell when an injury occurred by looking for remodeling, by looking at the manner in which the bone was broken, and by the colouration of the trauma itself.

Remodeling, which is the term for bone healing, will only be present in antemortem injuries.  If we can see remodeling, the injury must have happened before death.  This is the reason why doctors must set bones.  Bones are smart and will try to heal themselves, even if they are no longer aligned. So we find individuals with bones like this:

 

We can also look at how the bone actually broke. The bones in living bodies, which are considered wet bone, react to force differently than long dead bone, or dry bone.  When we see fractures that could have only happened to wet bone, we know that the trauma was antemortem or perimortem.  Greenstick fractures are an excellent example of this.  Much in the same way that a stick is easier to break in half if it’s dead, so is bone.  The wet, fragmented bone will stick together like a twig from a living tree.

(Access the original image and some complicated reading on trees here)

greenstick-fracture

Here you can see a greenstick fracture of the fibula (original image)

Comminuted fractures are another good example. This is when a fracture contains multiple fragmented pieces of bone. Below is an example of a comminuted fracture created by blunt force trauma.

This would never happen to dry bone, as it would simply shatter the skull.

In less clear cases, we can look for differences in the colouration of the fracture and the surrounding bone.  If the fractured area is lighter, it usually means that it has not been exposed to the elements as long and has therefore occurred after death in the grave or after excavation.  When damage happens after a person has been buried it’s called the taphonomic process, when it happens after excavation we call it students.

 

For more information about skeletal trauma, as always, feel free to comment or follow up in a message!

Biological Anthropology – An Overview

Biological anthropology is one of the four major subfields of anthropology. Very generally, biological anthropology examines the biological development of human beings–meaning that we study everything from human evolution, our evolutionary cousins (other primates), comparative anatomy, osteology (the study of bones), and ecology.

Here are just some of the many subfields of biological anthropology:

Palaeoanthropology – the study of human evolution and diversity
Primatology – the study of nonhuman primates
Forensic Anthropology – the use of human osteology in a legal context
Bioarchaeology – the study of human remains from archaeological sites
Human Ecology – the study of human interaction with the environment

All of these subjects seek to shed light on our history as organisms, but they also have direct and practical relevance to our world today. A major aspect of primatology, for example, is primate conservation. And forensic anthropology is used all over the world by police departments, major investigative parties after war, and in the wake of mass casualty events such as terrorism or natural disaster.
Very often, the practical subfields of biological anthropology are considered ‘anthropology’s jock-y younger brothers’ because we lack the theoretical framework that social anthropology and archaeology have in spades. But more on that later.

For everybody in New York City (my hometown), there’s a fantastic permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History called the Hall of Human Origins. It gives the lowdown on all of the major themes of biological anthropology and its many subfields. Also worth looking at is the Hall of Primates for just a small taste of the enormous diversity found in our taxonomical order.

It also provides an opportunity to compare your body to those of other apes!amnh

Notice the similar brachial morphology between the human and the orangutan!

 

On a solemn note:

Anthropology as a whole had a considerable role in proliferation of racist tropes in the late 19th century and well into the 20th. But biological anthropology’s involvement in the proliferation of these tropes is arguably the most sordid. Because we were able to mask our racial bias in the cloak of science, our research into the different ‘races’ of humans could be used as ‘proof’ of white and male supremacy. I put the word race in quotations because in the world of biology race literally means species! Anthropologists had a hand in creating this narrative. One particularly infamous study measured the cranial capacity of different races with the intention of proving that white people had bigger brains and were therefore smarter. This is, of course, bad science and there remains no relationship between brain size and intelligence anyway. When anthropologists began examining human evolution, their research was used to ‘prove’ that people of colour were less evolved and therefore more closely related to other primates than white people were. And these stereotypes have managed to stick around until today! There is also evidence that members of the Nazi Party utilised the same osteological collections that anthropologists rely on today to search for observable differences in the skeleton based on race. So it is critical that biological anthropologists acknowledge their discipline’s history and stand in staunch academic opposition to its lingering effects.

Have any questions about biological anthropology? As always, feel free to leave a comment or message me on the contact page.

Forensic Anthropology – An Overview

The research I’m doing for my doctoral thesis falls under Forensic Anthropology, which means I specialise in the analysis of the human skeleton and I apply this in a legal context. The human skeleton can tell us a lot, but more often than not skeletal evidence leaves us with many unanswered questions.

Forensic anthropology is a science of last resort.  In an ideal forensic world, evidence is plentiful, victims are easily identifiable, and crimes investigated as soon as possible. Never do any of these things happen in forensic anthropology.  We are called in when the death occurred so long ago that the body has decomposed and traditional methods of identification no longer work. And because we’re a science of last resort, we operate with a certain level of uncertainty. We can measure things such as biological sex, age at death, past trauma, certain types of diseases, stature, but all of these within broad boundaries. We very rarely use skeletal remains to try and identify race anymore, as there just isn’t enough evidence that those methods actually work.

When we look at a pelvis to determine biological sex, for example, we rank on a spectrum how female or how male certain parts appear.  This spectrum is Very Male, Somewhat Male, Indeterminate, Somewhat Female, Very Female. Notice how we do not say “definitely female or definitely male.” So here is a human pelvis:

biology-forum-pelvis

We can look at the sub-pubic angle, shown at the base of each pelvis, for an indication of sex. When it’s narrow (left) we would label this Very Male, and when it’s wide (right) we would label it Very Female.

Looking at age can be even more vague! When we’re dealing with children we can be specific to within a couple of years, but past 25 it all goes downhill and we start giving age ranges in decades.  To further compound the work of the forensic anthropologist, most research that has been done to establish these methods of analysis has been done in population specific studies.  Now this can be great if you’re looking at a specific population that has been researched already, but in an increasingly globalised world much of this research is obsolete from a practical point of view.

Something more helpful in a forensic investigation would be using knowledge of past trauma or an illness which we can see in the skeleton. Like a broken arm or cancer. But this raises issues for anyone studying poor victims who have no medical or dental records to work from. And this is critical as it creates a socioeconomic disparity within the discipline. After the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, victims with dental records were positively identified at a significantly higher rate, as dental analysis was the primary method of identification. But the majority of local victims did not have any dental records. One year later, 1252 European individuals were successfully identified with dental records compared to only 21 Thai victims. In these cases, we can ask surviving relatives for what’s called ante mortem evidence—that is evidence from before death including stories, testimonies, medical histories.

Usually at this point people ask about DNA evidence. It’s totally possible to do DNA analysis but it comes with its own set of problems. First, you need to have willing living participants to compare the DNA to and outreach to survivors can be limited, it’s expensive, and the DNA really doesn’t hold up too well over time. You need to have very specific samples from the skeleton and sometimes those just aren’t available because of the decomposition process, or because remains have been moved by perpetrators and are found incomplete. It also raises certain ethical questions. A forensic anthropologist at a conference over the summer gave a presentation about how DNA testing had revealed infidelity during investigations of mass graves in Iraq. Our first and foremost obligation is to the safety and wellbeing of our research participants, and as you can imagine this caused serious problems for them.

I work in mass grave contexts, specifically post genocide.  If that weren’t grim enough, there’s a whole other set of problems specific to mass graves.  In forensic anthropology, we usually look for something call Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI).  Notice how we don’t look for Actual or Estimated Number of Individuals. There are 206 bones in the adult human body, so we need to assume that if we find 206 bones in a grave that it’s one person not 206.  Sometimes the best we can do is put the pieces from the grave together until we get as many nearly complete skeletons as possible, and this means that we will inevitably miss individuals.   And in the case of genocide, often people are targeted for being from a specific genetic group or region, or because they look like they’re from that genetic group or region.  And those physical similarities can make identification of specific individuals that much more difficult.

For more information about the methodologies used by forensic anthropologists, keep your eye out for upcoming blog posts. But as always, feel free to ask any questions you may have in the mean time!