Monday, February 11, 2008

Squeamish? Skip this one

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, forensic anthropology

Having been honed for survival over the eons, a body is hard to get rid of. I understand that, even after incineration at 1800°F (1000°C), AKA cremation, the "cremains" are a recognizable skeleton, though it is a bit fragile at that point. This is ground to a crumbly powder before being "inurned" and turned over to the heirs or ensconced in a mausoleum.

The bones of dinosaurs and other fossil creatures have been petrified, or filled with minerals and thus turned to stone (though oftentimes the original bone is still there, intercalated with the stone). Not all fossil bone is petrified. I've handled non-petrified bones from the Badlands of South Dakota and Nebraska. After 13 Million years, they're a bit crumbly, but still hang together rather well.

Thus, it is a bit ironic that so many killers try to dispose of "evidence" with fire, by torching a car or house containing the victim(s). Bill Bass and other forensic anthropologists are in the business of proving that the most dedicated body-destroying murderer (or natural disaster) will still leave behind enough bits to determine the sex of the remains, the approximate age and stature, and usually the time/date of death and the person's race.

A side point: "race" is a much-disfavored term these days, but it happens that, by measuring your bones, and comparing the results to a database of such measurements, an anthropologist can indeed determine whether you are predominantly of European, African, Asian (including "Native American"), or Austronesian ancestry. In particular, although "black Africans" (which are not all as black as you might imagine) include dozens of ethnicities whose anatomical characteristics differ from one another more than most of them differ from European, all differ significantly from the range of European characteristics and can be clearly distinguished from them. American blacks who are descended from slaves range from near-European to near-African in type, being nearly all of mixed ancestry.

Some disasters, though human-made, are nearly on the level of "acts of God" such as tornadoes, in destructiveness. In Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores, Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science, Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson record one such, an explosion in an illegal fireworks factory in Tennessee blew eleven people to bits. A twelfth lucky fellow was "only" blown over the house into the front yard, landing on soft ground with some injuries and fractures but alive and with no parts missing. Those nearest the blast were found in several locations each. One flying body snagged on a branch and left a trail of entrails...OK, that's enough!

The point here is, with both flesh and bone to work with, Dr. Bass and his helpers were able to put everyone back together like 11 jigsaw puzzles, and get everyone identified (even one guy whose face was never found) so the right family buried the right body.

More frequently, an investigator has only the bones to work with, and often enough, not very many of those. These days, the DNA in the pulp of a single tooth (even after a fire) is enough to ID someone, though few watchers of CSI realize that DNA analysis can take weeks or months. For most of Dr. Bass's career, he has had to use dental records and old X-ray records to confirm an identification, and DNA has not always been the solution to even modern cases.

He is most frequently called on to determine approximate time of death. Since setting up the Body Farm he has become the foremost expert on modes and timing of the decay of human corpses. From his web site:
On the campus of the University of Tennessee lies a patch of ground unlike any in the world. The "Body Farm" is a place where human corpses are left to the elements, and every manner of decay is fully explored—for the sake of science and the cause of justice.
The rate at which a body loses its flesh, the timing and order of insect attack, and how all these depend on average temperature, are now well known. Only at temperatures substantially below freezing will a corpse's decay be halted, even for an "embalmed" body (the degree of embalming is quite variable, it turns out).

As "Jefferson Bass", Bass and Jefferson have written a series of mystery/detective novels based on cases involving Body Farm expertise. However, thirteen the actual cases detailed in Beyond's sixteen chapters make reading that I find more fascinating than any fictional treatment. The most touching is the exhumation and X-ray analysis of the body of "Big Bopper" (J.P. Richardson, Jr.), a process that brought comfort and closure to his son and grandchildren. The son was moving the body to another location, and asked Dr. Bass to take advantage of the opportunity to either confirm or put to rest rumors of conspiracy and murder. The analysis showed that Big Bopper, along with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, died of incredible injuries suffered during the crash of a small airplane in 1959. Rumors of gunfire and death after the crash skittered about for years, even decades. The first glances at X-rays of Richardson's legs made it clear he could not have walked away from the crash.

The book is not for the faint of heart. I was hesitant to read it, but found I am not so fainthearted as I least when it is someone else's demise and decay I am reading about (At age sixty, I still cannot watch myself being injected or getting an IV put in. Seeing the inch or so of blood that goes up an IV tube before they push it back in with saline solution can make me faint).

The skills of Dr. Bass and his colleagues—who now number in the dozens if not a hundred or more—are phenomenal. Say somebody finds a couple of ribs and an arm or leg bone, perhaps parts of a skull. Using modern database analysis (helped by fast computers), a forensic anthropoligist can tell enough about a person that a search can be made, for example, for records of someone "asian or asian-white mix, male, thirty to forty years old, 64-68 inches tall, slender build, died July 4-8)" rather than "Middle age asian, short, died midsummer", which was state of the art before the Body Farm was set up. But as Dr. Bass states, it is fortunate that he has a poor sense of smell...

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