Sunday, November 25, 2007

My First Case

For the past month, I have been working in the FAFG lab as the assistant to a forensic anthropologist, which has been an educative and fascinating experience. The two of us are responsible for reviewing a case of 74 individuals that were exhumed from an old military based in the province of Baja Verapaz. Nearly all of the skeletons are males between 15 and 45 years old. They were each dumped into a five-story deep well on the base, which made for a very difficult excavation carried out by the forensic archaeology team.

My job with this case is to place each skeleton in anatomical position, and start the process of reviewing the bones for determination of the individual’s age and signs of trauma. My colleague is responsible for the final determination of these, but throughout the course of the project I’ve taken on increasing responsibility. I am getting much more accurate at determining the age of death (using the pubic symphysis, rib ends and other skeletal elements), and at distinguishing between perimortem trauma (at or around the time of death) and postmortem trauma (any factor that affects the body after death). I find this to be especially difficult when it comes to ribs, which are brittle and often fracture as the body decomposes (postmortem trauma). In this case, almost all of the individuals exhibit perimortem blunt force fractures, including many broken ribs, from the fall into the well.

I have been surprisingly unaffected by the gritty nature of the work. I expected the experience to be more emotionally challenging than it has been to date, which I think this has to do mostly with two things: 1) arriving prepared. From past studies and experiences in Guatemala, mostly with Professor Anita Isaacs at Haverford, I learned about the country’s conflict, and even read witness testimony from the region of my current case. I knew what to expect when I arrived at the FAFG; and 2) lack of context in the laboratory setting. The social anthropologists and the archaeologists of the FAFG go out into the field to hear the stories of the disappeared, stand by the graves with the families, and bear witness to the positions that the bodies were in when they landed at the bottom of the grave. But in the lab setting, we get the “clean” version – the skeletons arrive in boxes and we lay them out on tables before examining the details and writing a report.

Moreover, it gets easier with time. One of the first cases that my colleague and I reviewed was that of a young man, about my age, whose skeleton exhibited multiple signs of trauma. We discovered that he was struck at least three times on the neck and back with a sharp-edged weapon – likely a machete – and that the attacker had to have come at him from the right side of his body. Somewhat strangely, he did not exhibit visible defense wounds on his hands or wrists, a possible indication that his hands were tied at the time of the attack.

There was a moment of silence after we decided this, in which time I thought about the unfortunate final moments of this young war victim. Then my colleague looked up from the sliced vertebra in his hand and said “que bonito” (“how pretty”). I was taken aback by this comment, which came from a purely scientific standpoint. But I quickly snapped back into forensic mode – “sí, que bonito,” I said. And it’s true, the human skeleton is beautiful, and being able to discern slight marks in it that determine the difference between life and death is indeed astonishing.

Some 40 individuals later, I found myself saying the same thing when we were able to determine the sequence of two gun shot wounds and a blunt-force injury to someone’s skull.

1 comment:

Who said...

Dude, so true what you said about ribs. But on the plus side if you slow roast them the meat just falls off the bones.
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I apologize.