A bounty of bones
Professor Henry Gilbert catalogs skeletal remains from around the globe on a first-of-its kind Web site
BY MONIQUE BEELER
As he scans patches of parched ground in Ethiopia’s section of the Great Rift Valley each summer, Professor Henry Gilbert sees dead people. More accurately, he spots pieces of their bones — usually fossils trampled into coin-sized fragments by millennia of downpours, windstorms, relentless sun, and ceaseless human and wildlife migration. Into this skeletal smorgasbord is mixed a generous helping of bones from animals that were roasted over prehistoric campfires, fell to predators, or simply dropped due to disease or famine.
As an anthropologist who specializes in forensic osteology, Gilbert knows at a glance whether a bony body part he finds once belonged to a non-mammal or a hominid — one of the family of upright walking species ranging from ancient human ancestors to modern people. Marks visible on hominid bones reveal to Gilbert’s trained eye clues to the individual’s cause of death, whether from a fall or an ax blow.
Today, through a first-of-its-kind Web site, www.forensicosteology.com, Gilbert in collaboration with colleagues at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and others, is providing a reference tool for colleagues worldwide. Known as FOROST, the online project provides a database of images of skeletal remains and case descriptions that anthropology students, human rights and genocide investigators, and forensic workers can turn to when they need help in identifying a bone fragment or pinpointing a cause of death based on marks left on skeletal remains. In a Cal State East Bay Magazine interview, Gilbert discusses his work.
In what area of anthropology do you specialize?
I’ve been doing paleoanthropology fieldwork and running a field site in Ethiopia for the past six years. That’s my primary area of expertise. There are fossils all over the Rift Valley.
You have to be able to identify a small piece of non-mammal bone fragment versus a hominid. I’ve spent years memorizing every bone in the human body. That’s a ridiculous skill that not even a forensic scientist really needs.
What is forensic osteology?
Forensic osteology is the use of bones to re-create the circumstances of a forensic event, generally focused on pathology or events surrounding death. Bones can also reveal the stature or ancestry of the individual. Also, you can get a lot (of information) about trauma to the body.
What else does a bone fragment reveal?
It can reveal a lot. It can reveal age. It can reveal sex. It can reveal nutrition in life. It can reveal ancestry and geographic area (where the person lived). It can reveal activities surrounding death. It can reveal the diseases the individual suffered from in life and healed from.
It tells a lot of story — anything that has a metabolic system impact. Imagine you were a child and went through years without enough protein; there would be a lot of hypoplasia, bumps on the teeth.
Why did the field need the FOROST Web site?
Working in Ethiopia, I know a lot about what resources people have and don’t have. People have computers and Internet … but they don’t have 50 cents to buy a photocopied book. Police in (underdeveloped countries) can go to an Internet café and find forensicosteology.com. Not everyone who runs a forensic science lab has a degree, especially internationally.
Right now, FOROST has almost 600 photos.
Imagine if you want to know if this (mark on a bone) was from a machete injury or a buffalo ran over the skull after death? Is it better to look at one photo or hundreds?
When you examine a bone, how do you handle it?
It depends on the circumstances. Generally speaking you use gloves, especially in any forensic context. The second thing you do is to work with a high-powered incandescent light and a good table where they won’t fall and break. Then it’s a matter of being thorough.
(This) is a piece of a sphenoid, it’s a piece of a cranium. You can get pretty good at distinguishing between hominid and non-hominid. I’m really good at this, so I end up training others.
There are 206 bones in the human body. Every structure that leaves a mark on a bone, I’ve memorized.
What photos of skeletal specimens will users find in the database?
We’ve got 253 specimens from 12 countries.
I don’t know if every single bone is represented. There are probably going to be more crania than other stuff. (There are) long bones — legs and arms, anything that gets fractured regularly. Ribs, there are plenty of ribs.
How did creation of FOROST come about?
It’s hard to get access to (study) bones in the U.S. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act has really changed the dynamic of who owns bones in the U.S.
Things are very different in Mexico. At the Facultad de Medicina of UNAM … they’re developing a skeletal collection. There are a lot of pathology and hospital collections in it.
And their anthropological museum has 18,000 human skeletons for people to study.
In working with people in Mexico, I thought: Why not start this international group of people who post (forensic osteology images)?
It generated this international twist to things that gave it a life of its own. It launched at the beginning of 2007-08.
Who uses the FOROST site?
I don’t know who they are; I just know where they are.
We’re getting (users) from Libya, from Egypt, from you name it. Name a country that’s got some kind of genocide site, and they’re using it.
As of January 2011, we were getting 2,200 visits a month.
There are probably a lot of students in anthropology and forensic scientists. I spoke at the last (FOROST) conference to two different people who run forensic labs in small jurisdictions in northern Mexico.
Editor’s note: In March, Gilbert organized the Second Annual Seminar of Forensic Anthropology in Mexico City, drawing international FOROST participants.
How has anthropology influenced forensic science?
These (forensic osteology) skills end up being extremely useful for forensic science.
It turns out that those skills are exactly what you need when you get called to the stand and asked, “Was the cut made by a steak knife or a butcher knife?”
Nowadays, everyone uses DNA, but DNA won’t tell you what happened, it can (only) tell you who was involved.
How has the site proven useful in ways you didn’t expect?
We’ve gotten interest from people from Portugal, Spain, the Czech Republic, and France. What ends up happening is getting people together in a non-competitive way. There have been some technological innovations that have happened in ways information has been organized and cited. Lots of collaboration — that’s the biggest thing.