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Skeleton Keys

Smithsonian Anthropologists Unlock Secrets in Bones of Ancestors and Crime Victims

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 31, 2002; Page C01

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)

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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 years old.

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 Smithsonian.

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 bodies."

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 not.

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.

Almost.

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."


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