Making the dead talk


In the third article of the series, ‘Anthropological Gleanings’, we are trying to touch the depths of another very interesting sub discipline of anthropology, forensic anthropology. This field of study was distinguished as a separate scientific discipline in the early years of 20th century, fundamentally in the United States. During 1940, anthropologists made remarks on the significance of the role that forensic anthropology could play in crime investigations and archaeology. After struggling much, in the mid-90s forensic anthropology obtained recognition as a legitimate science and started professionalisation.

Forensic anthropology in numerous fields

Ceylon Today reached out to Dr. Tharaka Ananda, Lecturer at Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, to get an insight into the subject’s field of study, its applications and the trends.

“Forensic anthropology is the scientific discipline that applies the methods of physical anthropology (also called biological anthropology) and archaeology to the collection and analysis of legal evidence. It can be considered as a sub discipline of biological anthropology,” she explained the basics of forensic anthropology briefly.

“In the present day, forensic anthropologists play vital roles by getting specialised in various fields such as archaeology, odontology and uses their knowledge for the identification of unidentified individuals and many other related aspects,” Dr. Ananda highlighted how the knowledge of forensic anthropology is being used in many other related fields also.

“Forensic anthropology has high significance in the legal ambience too. The relationship that forensic anthropologist has with the legal process and with the criminal investigation is that, when the death of an individual is unusual or absurd (when death is unattended: occurring outside of a hospital or away from a medical professional) it is hard to determine whether it is a traumatic (caused by the actions of another person, an accident, suicide, natural disaster, or other catastrophe) death, part of a mass fatality, due to an undiagnosed illness, or homicide.

Synonymously, sometimes we discover partially decomposed or fully decomposed human remains in various contexts. In such situations, it is quintessential to examine the corpse or remaining parts and decipher the information such as the gender of the dead, age at death, cause of death, and so on. If sufficient soft tissues in the body are there, of course a medical examiner’s expertise can contribute in this process of analysing and identification. Nevertheless, in a situation where the human remains found are more of skeleton than flesh, it is the forensic anthropologists who become the primary examiners, because they are specialised in osteology, the study of bones and their diseases,” she furthered.

“Forensic anthropology uses the knowledge of osteology to establish the identity of an unidentified individual. Forensic anthropologists can execute the whole identification process by only relying on one bone fragment of an individual. 

“Identification process done by the forensic anthropologists is not a simple one. To exemplify, let’s say that some remains of an unidentified individual are found in a place such as a lake, ground, paddy field, archaeological site, mountainous region, mass grave, graveyard, or such similar place other than a usual burial ground. In such cases, that particular individual can be a victim of a homicide, or he might have been caught up in a natural disaster, or else he might have been died while hiking. Or else, those remaining parts could be of a girl who had been raped and murdered, even burned. Likewise, there is a plethora of possibilities. Hence, the identification of the individual and the cause of death are indeed a complex and subtle process; there is a very long process from planning for field work, site investigation, and recovery or exhumation, until the identification”

With the involvement of the forensic anthropologists these investigations are given a more humanitarian shade, as they try to correctly identify the individual and let the loved ones hold a respectful burial or at least perform the final rituals in the memory of the dead. Dr. Ananda furthered on this. “The identification of skeletal and other decomposed human remains is important for both legal and humanitarian reasons. If the case is related to homicide or another crime, the support of forensic anthropologists is needed to solve it. On the other hand, families that have missing relatives should be given information about their beloved relative when discovered the body or parts, and if the remains are found they should be identified and finally buried with due respect.”

How do forensic anthropologists work?

Dr. Ananda elaborated how this identification process is done in the light of anthropology and forensic science.

“When there are unrecognised human remains forensic anthropologists’ endeavours to find answers to several specific questions such as;

Are the remains human?

Do the remains represent a single individual or several individuals? and

What did the person look like?

Also, the description should include details about the sex, age, race, height, physique, and handedness, as well as the unique skeletal traits or anomalies that could serve to provide a tentative or positive identification, if there are any. The expertise and knowledge that forensic anthropologists have is highly utilised in answering these questions and with the help of the light shed by the answers to them, they eventually build up the full profile of that particular persona.”

As well as they identify the human, forensic anthropologists should understand the circumstances of the death too. That information is gathered in relation to another set of questions such as;

When did the death occur?

Did the person die at the place of the burial or was she/he transported after death? and

Has the grave been disturbed or has the person been buried more than once?

So, based upon the evidences and the analyses related to these incidents, forensic anthropologists highly support in solving legal problems when needed. 

Forensic anthropology in the Sri Lankan context

Forensic anthropology, just like some other recent sub-disciplines of anthropology, is still a developing field of study, in Sri Lanka, but in fact, it’s in its way. Even though, the knowledge of this field is being applied in various sectors, in Sri Lanka too.  Dr. Ananda overviewed this context.

“The applications of forensic anthropological knowledge in the Sri Lankan context can be actually discussed related to different and various fields such as in natural disasters (the tsunami catastrophe in 2004, landslide of the Meethotamulla garbage pile, and so on), identification of individuals based on the remains exhumed from mass graves (such as the mass graves in Matale, Chemmani, and Mannar and so on), and in providing expert knowledge for research purposes done in the archaeological contexts where human remains are associated. This knowledge especially helps related to the determination of sex, stature, ancestry, estimation of age at death, analysis of skeletal trauma, nutrition, diet, and much other information on the individual in both contexts of before the death and after the death

“Add to that, forensic anthropologists are capable of providing their knowledge to assist the crime scene investigations; collection and analysis of physical evidence, and site investigation when it’s associated with burials that need to be recovered/exhumed and identified. Also, another area in that we can use forensic anthropological knowledge is human rights-related fields. Anthropologists discover very crucial information related to a death, which are quintessential to proceed with a lawsuit, if the dead has been subjected to cruelty or injustice. Forensic anthropologists can also support in the management of deaths in some special instances such as mass fatalities in situations such as COVID-19 and other fatal epidemics,” she shared.

“When looked in an academic sense, the Department of Anthropology of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura is the only department in Sri Lanka that offers biological anthropology as a distinct subject field for students. Under the main stream of biological anthropology, we, the lecturers at Department of Anthropology, provide students with the knowledge of the human skeletal system, odontology, and forensic anthropology as well. Our students are engaged in forensic anthropology-related research for their final year thesis and some of them intend to continue studies in forensic anthropology for their postgraduate studies as well. So, we have hopes for a better tomorrow in the field of forensic Anthropology,” furthered Dr. Ananda. “However, at a global level, it can be seen that forensic anthropology is extending its branches into many other fields at a high rate, at present,” she added

Being the voice of the dead

Someone might see only little significance of forensic anthropology, but it has to be learnt that the little things make greater changes. Dr. Ananda briefed in this regard.

“We know that forensic anthropological techniques are being utilised in archaeological sites. So, the analysis of prehistoric human remains in such contexts could unfold many pages of the history and tell us million worthy stories of prehistoric humans and their way of life. Anthropologists are important because their focus is divided on each aspect of human life and society, and thus helps to create the bigger picture. Sometimes a small fragment of a bone could reveal clues that might change the entire story of human evolution, and it will make a huge impact on many fields,” she stressed.

“Also, just imagine how we feel when we lose one our family members or relatives or near and dear ones. We might make up our mind to live without him or her with aid of various rites and religious practices that we perform. Yet, we still would need our lost relative or friend or family member to be found or at least the remains if the body is decayed.  Anthropologists, in that case perform a great task of humanity by identifying the dead individuals or the remains and allowing the relatives to pay respect.

“Also, when mass graves are found it’s important to the society or the country to know who lies underneath and who murdered or buried them in such manner. In fact, the justice has to be done for the dead,” she shared. “Forensic anthropologists can literally unveil the history,” said Dr. Ananda. “For an instance, let’s say there is a homicide, which has taken place about 10 years ago and we still have no clues but a fragmented bone. It might be a part of a huge crime, or a series of murders or whatever. No matter what, forensic anthropologists are there to reveal the untold story and even to identify the criminals

“Missing or unidentified are silent. Ergo, forensic anthropologists become their voice in many cases, and deliver their message to the living,” she eventually added.

Wrapping up the discussion, Dr. Ananda, on behalf of the Department of Anthropology of University of Sri Jayewardenepura, invited all the students of anthropology as well as the other stakeholders to join with them through the official Facebook page Anthropology crew of University of Sri Jayewardenepura or the university website, since they are planning to conduct many interesting events and programmes regarding the subject and related fields, in future.

By Induwara Athapattu