Forensic anthropologist Mark Beary carefully pieces together Boone County criminal evidence bone by bone.
Beary, 44, has been an anthropologist for 15 years and works with the Boone County Medical Examiner to analyze skeletal remains and the environment they were left in. He said forensic anthropology can help to estimate information about the person’s biological profile such as their age at death, biological sex, stature and ancestry, as well as whether they suffered blunt force, sharp force, gunshot or other kinds of trauma.
“All of that combines to help bring closure not only for the individual, but for their families who are often times left with a lot of unanswered questions in these types of cases,” he said.
Currently, there are many unanswered questions about the deceased infant whose remains were found Thursday at McKnight Plaza off Providence Road. Columbia Police Department investigators will be consulting with a forensic anthropologist like Beary in hopes of uncovering more information about the child, Assistant Chief Jeremiah Hunter announced on Friday.
Forensic anthropology is the subfield of physical anthropology that applies skeletal analysis and archeological techniques to solving criminal cases, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It can also sometimes be used to learn who a person was, Beary said.
During an investigation the skeleton is arranged in its anatomical position, measured and photographed, Beary said.
Anthropologists are then able to make a final report with estimations about things like age, sex and ancestry. Beary said that what can be estimated depends on each case.
“The age of death of each individual has a lot to do with how much we can determine about those things,” Beary said.
He said it can be easier to accurately estimate a younger individual’s age of death, but biological sex and ancestry are easier to estimate for an older person.
The age of death can be estimated by looking at the bones and teeth and how developed they are, Beary said. Children have more bones than adults, and adult bones continue to change over time, he said.
Beary said by taking measurements of the skull and entering them into a database, forensic anthropologists are able to estimate the probability that the person was of a certain ancestry. Beary also said anthropologists use ancestry in place of race.
“There is some biological basis (in ancestry) because when we look around the globe we see some variation, for example in facial features, because populations for a long time on the earth, before we became as interconnected, were more isolated,” Beary said.
Biological sex, on the other hand, can be determined by sexual dimorphism, or differences in bone shape between males and females, Beary said. Females, for example, have a distinct pelvic shape.
Lastly, Beary said how long the individual was left where they were found can be estimated based on the conditions of the place they were in. He said exposure to rain, insects, animals and different temperatures all affect how quickly the body decomposes.
The duration of the investigation varies on a case-by-case basis, he said.
“In the television shows they are going to present a case and then that case is going to be solved or there will be some closure by the end of the show,” Beary said. “Real case loads take weeks to sometimes even a few months.”
Beary said it is best if the anthropologist is there early in the process.
“What we really want to do is preserve all of the evidence in that original setting, and we want to preserve that context,” he said. “That may be very useful information when it comes to providing clues as to the manner of death.”
Beary said forensic anthropology is an expanding field and that the relationship between anthropology and forensics continues to be critical.
“It’s helping the individuals who no longer have a voice for themselves,” he said.
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