the science of humans, perhaps

I’m going to continue on about the Humanitarian workshop business..and no it was not about learning how to commit human rights violations by doing group exercises, sick.

Who better to start off this post with than Paul Sledzik? This guy rocks (no arch pun intended). Mr. Sledzik was one of the authors of the article that I based my thesis on, so I was verryyyyy happy to be there and see him present the work that he does at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He discussed the NTSB Family Assistance model and DMORT Antemortem Data Categories ( He is so casual when he presents and keeps the audience engaged. I found that what he was talking about could have been plain and boring but I considered it informative and it actually made me think of how useful a forensic anthropologist can be in a disaster recovery situation. Not only does the FA assist in recovering and analyzing bones, but they work towards making a positive identification. Ok, we already know that, but how is this guy making a difference working for the NTSB? Well the Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA) department deals with living people too. You can look at the link above but basically (or not so basically) the NTSB TDA group provides assistance to the victims of an accident, their families, and focuses on preventative actions to mitigate transportation accidents in the US. I’m glad an anthropologist is involved with this because ideally he has a holistic point of view of human nature, and a scientific point of view on identifying humans and the risks and outcomes of transportation accidents on the human body (skeleton). I think that the ability to have skills of various sorts is difficult to deal with when trying to find a profession that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re not working to your greatest ability or you’re losing special skills by not practicing them (ok fine, I just said that because that’s how I feel); however, I think that having these skills and applying them to a profession of such high importance is overlooked as essential, but as the one fulfilling this position, it must be so self satisfying (envy). I have a great appreciation for anthropologists that are human rights activists and advocates internationally. I just wanted to point out that that’s not only what anthropologists focus on. There are national professions, cultural concerns, scientific questions, etc., that anthropologists can use their array of skills for. I wish this was recognized more, especially by the federal government. From my experience I think that federal government jobs (and all others of course) should consider this holistic professional manner as an appealing  component of a person’s (anthropologist’s) job qualifications rather than strictly based on experience or association.

Moving on. Positive identification. The combination of antemortem data and postmortem data. What’s the difference? Antemortem data is the information about a potential victim before potential death and postmortem is information about a victim after death. Here’s an example: there was a mass fatality of some sort, a genocide perhaps. A militant so-called “dominant” group, the group committing the crimes of genocide, kills some of the members of the “recessive” group. Years later, the almighty USA (a mocking ethnocentric remark) comes in and stops the domineering group from killing and starts picking up the pieces of the targeted group (tangible and intangible). Let me paint a not so pleasant image for you; there are bodies thrown into mass graves, hence thrown, and remnants of clothing and belongings and bones are all that remain. The family members of the missing (assumed deceased) are terrified, want justice, and probably most importantly want inner peace and closure after such tragedy. So, let’s identify those bodies in the mass grave. Let’s do it, let’s help these people find closure, justice and bring an absolute end to this violence! Families, give me some information about your missing loved ones. What did they look like? How tall were they? What was their lifestyle/job? Any medical conditions? Any skeletal anomalies or dental restorations? What were they wearing when you saw them last? Do they wear a particular piece of jewelry all of the time? This is antemortem data. Anything could help reconstruct this missing person’s identification, because a name just won’t do it this time (assuming they have no form of identification on them in the grave). Annnnd postmortem data, both types of data can be, and after this workshop I’ve realized should be, interpreted by a forensic anthropologist. They should at least be involved if not doing it themselves. Another thing that Mr. Sledzik and many other presenters brought up was that a forensic anthropologist IS involved in the grieving process so they interact with the families and have to have some “bedside manner”. Postmortem data can include the biological profile assessment, clothing and accessories, skeletal anomalies, dental restorations, body placement, injuries to the body, cause and manner of death, and an endless number of other types of data, circumstances, and possibilities. Mercedes Salado Puerto from the EAAF discussed that “to identify is to compare”. We need antemortem data to compare to postmortem data. Otherwise, we can only assume things. She says an “approximate is only for guidance”; which I think is very well put because contrary to popular belief, a reflection of the CSI effect, nothing is 100% certain, including a DNA match.

Next post will be focused specifically on the probability of DNA matching and the basics of the science of DNA..


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