When remains of the Waco
dead or 9/11 Pentagon victims or Desert Storm casualties -- or most
recently Chandra Levy -- need to be studied, the bone guys at the
Smithsonian are called in. The bone guys read skeletons like intricate
topological maps. Sometimes they can make identification from a skull
fragment the size of a quarter. They can read race in the teeth and
gender in the brow. They can tell you who had an asymmetric nose. They
can tell you who may have been a factory worker, because bones grow
more pronounced to accommodate certain muscles, and who may have been a
weaver or a tailor, based on grooves in the teeth where thread was held.
And often they can trace the last moments of a person's life.
Museum of Natural History specialist Karin Bruwelheide and
anthropologists David Hunt and Doug Owsley often help police
investigate modern-day mysteries.
(Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)
To get to their
offices, follow the twisting back hallways of the Museum of Natural
History, stacked with floor-to-ceiling shelves containing the bones of
30,000 human skeletons, the largest collection in the country and
possibly in the world. One is a Neanderthal specimen at least 50,000
Stop when you get to the office where the new bones sit, waiting to regain their identity, their dignity.
In Doug Owsley's laboratory -- the shelves of which
hold, at quick count, 24 skulls -- four sets of human remains are laid
out on the work tables. The oldest, a Native American skeleton from
Utah, about a thousand years old, has been mineralized by age and
exposure and appears gray, as if made of rock. It seems not so much the
frame of a once-mobile human as it does a historical artifact.
Owsley picks up an attached pelvic bone and femur and
illustrates the miracles of modern medicine. Look at this, he says,
setting the ancient bones against his hip to show how the femur is
fused at a 90-degree angle to the socket. As best Owsley can tell, the
bone was broken and when it healed, without benefit of physical
therapy, it set permanently in a sitting position. This person would
have had to use a crutch to walk.
Such a discovery can teach not only how tough the
human body is, but also -- if the person lived for years with a serious
problem -- how well society cared for the injured and infirm. Studying
historical bones like these is the bulk of what Owsley does for the
But nearby is evidence of the other part of his job:
an apparent murder case sent by the West Virginia state medical
examiner. Owsley is tight-mouthed about the details; the case is active
and he doesn't want to compromise it. He picks up the skull, which has
two great gaping holes. The skull is heavily seamed after Owsley, 50,
carefully pieced it back together. Blunt-force trauma.
"It's just the way it breaks," he says.
He slides an X-ray from the same skeleton onto a light box.
"This is her pelvis after it's been cleaned up. There's a lot of shot."
He points to three BB-sized circles on one side --
shotgun pellets that burrowed into the bone and were undetectable to
the naked eye. This skeleton was a woman in her forties when she was
shot and her skull smashed in.
Owsley is piecing together a horror story.
The three physical anthropologists at Natural History
most active in forensics spend much of their time investigating
modern-day mysteries. In addition to identifying bodies, they help
excavate the scene where remains are found, as Smithsonian
anthropologist David Hunt did in the Levy case. And, while D.C. Medical
Examiner Jonathan Arden identified Levy's remains, Hunt corroborated
the identification and -- along with colleague Doug Ubelaker --
separated postmortem trauma from injuries incurred before or at the
time of Levy's death. (Arden gave these details; Hunt and Ubelaker
declined comment, citing the open investigation.)
So history informs the present, and vice versa. By
working on contemporary forensic cases, anthropologists learn a lot
that helps in their historical research. They can hone techniques,
study how different environments affect bone deterioration, and
discover natural human variations, helping them weed out those that
result from injury or disease.
Arden says a forensic anthropologist can lend a great
deal of expertise to a forensic pathologist such as himself. "They have
a much more detailed knowledge of the fine points of the structures of
the bones," says Arden. "We tend to deal with intact or nearly intact
On Tuesday, Arden pronounced Levy's death a homicide, but he could not rule on how she died. That, he says, we may never know.
True mysteries. In quiet, fluorescent-lit offices,
Ubelaker, Owsley and Hunt are pondering and often solving them without
benefit of pithy dialogue or a musical soundtrack. They are detectives:
intense and intelligent, a careful blend of studiously neutral and
compassionate. This is, after all, real life. And death.
The museum's physical anthropology department numbers
15, with scientists, researchers and support staff. Ubelaker, 55, has
been there since 1971. In '77, he started doing work for the FBI, and
now the majority of forensic cases he takes come through headquarters
up the street. Ubelaker says he has studied 717 forensic cases over the
past quarter-century, 20 percent of his workload.
The relationship between the FBI and the Smithsonian's
anthropologists goes back to the '30s, when the nation had few
scientists qualified to study bones for clues.
If there is one thing Ubelaker and his colleagues have
learned, it is never to be swayed by anything other than the facts.
Assumptions can be a scientist's greatest error.
One might be examining remains dressed in women's garb
and find that they are . . . those of a man. (Hunt, 44, has had this
happen several times.) Or, one might study a bone fragment found in
remote Alaska -- as Ubelaker did once -- and realize . . . it belongs
to a dog. "Everybody was fooled," says Ubelaker. They assumed it was
human because it had been broken and reset with a metal plate. But the
surgery was in fact the work of a veterinarian.
It is a meticulous business, filled with booby traps.
Rodent chew marks can look like cuts. Animals trampling bones and
erosion from acidic soil and exposure to the elements can produce
fractures that look like injuries.
While dog bones masquerading as human ones are a
puzzle quickly solved, some mysteries take far longer. Owsley studied
one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims for three to four months before he
could piece together and identify the remains, because Dahmer had so
thoroughly chopped up the body. Cases like this can be painstaking:
assembling bone chip after bone chip, sometimes using a scanning
electron microscope to check whether small fragments are indeed bone or
Ultimately, Owsley compared a dental X-ray taken of
the victim as a boy with a partial tooth root found among the remains.
They matched. He then compared a neck vertebra with a medical X-ray of
the same spot. Bingo.
"There are little shape differences and subtle little nuances that you learn to read very carefully," Owsley says.
This is a lesson in how fast technology moves. Owsley
worked on the Dahmer case in 1991; if he took it on now, he says, he
would be able to send it out for DNA testing. But such testing is not
always practical because the cost can be prohibitive and DNA often
cannot be detected in burned bones.
Sometimes cases cannot be solved because an identity
or cause of death can't be determined. Many diseases won't show on a
skeleton, and stab wounds, for example, may not cut to the bone.
The job takes Owsley, Hunt and Ubelaker all around the
world. This weekend, Ubelaker leaves for Ecuador, where he will study
skeletons thousands of years old. One of the things he'll do is analyze
the tartar on their teeth, to see whether it contains particles of
corn. That may indicate whether these prehistoric people had made the
transition from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. This
science is so new Ubelaker doesn't know if it will work.
The Smithsonian scientists have worked on mass graves
in Croatia after Yugoslavia's civil war, on missing persons in Mexico,
and on murdered American journalists in Guatemala.
When the most fundamental of facts -- the identity of
a skeleton -- is not known, forensic anthropologists try to determine
age at death (based in part on the development of the bones and teeth,
as well as by the density of the bones and their internal capillary
system), gender (based on the pelvis and skull), stature and ancestry,
plus any evidence of disease and striking characteristics. By comparing
this information with missing-persons files they can often make a match.
They look for insight into a lifestyle. Bone growing
over an old break suggests an injury while the victim was alive. Dental
work may indicate the person's economic status, and stains on the teeth
may indicate a smoker. Arthritis is another clue. In one case, Owsley
was able to make an identification from a piece of skull no bigger than
a quarter by detecting an unusual shape in the frontal sinus cavity. In
another, he identified the remains of a young District woman -- found
partially decomposed and buried in sand in the basement of an apartment
building -- even though she had no medical records (she originally was
from Africa). He compared the remains' dental structure with an
enlarged photo of her mouth in life.
In his office Tuesday afternoon, Owsley pulls down
books organized by year, filled with slides and photographs of past
cases. He rests 1992 on his lap, and opens to a slide of what looks
like gravel. This case, he explains, was brought to him by a woman who
was not sure that the cremated remains given to her were really those
of her husband. She had found what seemed to be false teeth in the urn,
but her husband didn't have false teeth.
By X-raying the fragments, Owsley determined that the
woman was right: The ashes did not belong to her husband -- or, at
least, not solely to him. In addition to at least nine false teeth,
Owsley found two needles used to fasten lips together when a body is
embalmed. The woman's husband had not been embalmed.
Owsley doesn't know what happened after that. With the
sober neutrality of a scientist, he gave the woman his results and went
on to the next case. He and his colleagues are scientists, first and
foremost, because they must be. The human body is their laboratory.
Owsley stands before a clear Rubbermaid container containing one of his cases.
"This is going to smell a little but let's look," he says.
Inside is one-third of a skeleton that Owsley has been soaking in water to clean it. The odor is musty, distinctly organic.
What you smell, remarks Hunt, positioned nearby, is "the chemical transformation of fatty acids into lipids."
Hearing it described like that almost strips the horror from the scene.
Despite the men's professional detachment, working so
close to death is not easy. Before Owsley spent a week after Sept. 11
helping identify the Pentagon victims, he was a frantic father. His
23-year-old daughter was working in the C Ring of the building that
fateful morning, and it was hours before he knew she was all right.
That day brought home to him -- more starkly than ever before -- the
pain surrounding every case he works on. But at least he can give
families closure. He can help police solve cases, maybe even prevent
similar crimes in the future.
With each case, "you're looking at the bones and
reading those bones and telling their story," Owsley says. "You're
doing this to speak for that person, who can't for themselves."