The body in the barrel and other mysteries: new book shows forensic anthropology in action

This just in: Heather Garvin, Ph.D., D-ABFA, recently was interviewed on the Just Science podcast about her work with OSTEOID, an online resource for species identification of skeletal remains. A Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and one of fewer than 120 people to be certified by the board, she also discusses her field, career path and current research activities in the podcast interview.

In the case of human remains discovered near a California railroad yard frequented by transients, a combination of skeletal and trauma analyses, an online search of missing persons records and a review of social media posts helped uncover a brutal murder.

In the case of a 1952 plane crash into Alaska’s Colony Glacier, an understanding of the environment and meticulous preparation led, decades later, to the identification of 39 of the 52 individuals lost.

In the case involving a headless woman found in a Midwest river, biomechanical analysis of her long bones revealed she had had mobility impairment during part of her life. That information connected investigators to a local wheelchair salesman and then to the woman’s husband, who confessed to killing her.

In these and 23 other cases, summarized in the new book Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology: Bonified Skeletons (CRC Press, 2020), the unifying theme is the key role of forensic anthropologists, the experts who gather and interpret evidence of human remains to uncover the cause of death. They work alongside medical examiners, law enforcement, geologists and other professionals in their sometimes gritty, often fascinating work.

Co-editors of the book are Heather Garvin, Ph.D., D-ABFA, associate professor of anatomy at DMU, and Natalie Langley, Ph.D., D-ABFA, associate professor at Mayo Clinic Arizona in the department of laboratory medicine and pathology, division of anatomic pathology. The chapters were written by 63 contributors from around the world.

“As professionals, we are obliged to share these exceptional learning experiences to foster continuing professional development and the quest for knowledge,” the co-editors state in the book’s introduction. “‘Bonify’ is an archaic word that means ‘to convert to the good.’ We felt this pun was appropriate given that forensic anthropologists take something bad (the death of an individual) and do something good with the information by helping to identify them, unravel the circumstances around their death, and bring closure to loved ones.”

Garvin is one of approximately 90 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the nation and the only one in Iowa. A Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, she is one of fewer than 120 people to be certified by the board.

“Editing this volume, I learned a lot about the diverse work of my colleagues,” she says. “Every case is unique and the greater number of cases we, as professionals, are exposed to, the better equipped we are to handle the next one. This is particularly true for students in the field who may not have much experience.”

Heather Garvin, Ph.D.

With chapters sporting titles such as “Dismembered, Burned and Dumped: But in What Order?,” “Body in the Barrel: Complex Body Disposal and Recovery” and “Who Pulled the Trigger…First? Bone Biomechanics Recreate the Story Behind a ‘Police Shooting’,” the book covers the gamut of forensic investigation, from murders and war-time graves to mass disasters and the discovery of human skeletal remains used in religious rituals. Each chapter includes a “lessons learned” section and discussion questions designed to encourage critical thinking and debates.

Throughout, the book demonstrates the importance of the careful recovery and handling of evidence, the value of multidisciplinary teams, the danger of making assumptions and the evolution of tools and technologies, from Instagram posts to a silicone material – Dragon Skin® 10 MED – that was used to create a mold of the face of a skull found partially embedded in concrete. Its case-based learning experiences, its co-editors state, are an important companion to classroom and laboratory learning.

“As these cases illustrate, forensic anthropological casework is complex, with each case presenting its own challenges,” Garvin and Langley write in the introduction. “Sharing case experiences among the forensic anthropology community guarantees the availability of these types of learning experiences, and this shared knowledge is vital to the continued success of our field.”

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