RALEIGH — North Carolina State University’s forensics lab looks like any other college classroom. You find a podium for a professor, worktables, chairs and bookshelves. It is all pretty standard, until you enter an adjoining classroom with a sign reading “Wet Lab.”
Walk in the room and there, directly in front of you, is an exam table with a human skeleton on it. The bones are laid out in the correct anatomical position. It is fascinating but also a bit unnerving to see.
“We lay out all of the bones of the entire skeleton in the correct position so we can examine every single bone individually,” says Dr. Ann Ross, professor of Sociology and Anthropology at NC State. “If we find an anomaly with any bone, we examine it under the microscope. Because every case is different, it always provides a unique perspective that you have to gain from looking at the remains.”
Dr. Ross says there are 206 bones in the human skeleton. And in death, a person’s bones speak volumes about their life.
Wake County authorities know very little about the man whose skeleton lies on the exam table. They don’t know who he is or how he came to be in Wake County. They’ve asked Dr. Ross and her assistant Amanda Hale to learn whatever they can. The NC State lab helps authorities across the state in more than one dozen cold cases every year.
The scientists' first discovery: the unknown man died violently.
“It looks like we have three entrance gunshot wounds here,” says Dr. Ross, as she points out the signs of violence to her assistant who is holding the skull. Dr. Ross indicates there is one hole on the upper left side of the skull that is long. “This is called a keyhole wound because it is longer, and it shows the direction of the shot was superior to inferior, or top to bottom, with the bullet trajectory from the top of the skull, and another two shots from the right side.”
Forensic anthropology could be called the science of talking bones. That’s because everything a person does in life leaves a mark on their bones. For example, if a person was physically active and very fit, the muscle attachments would leave muscle marks on the bones.
“Bones can also tell you about the diseases a person had in life, what kind of pre-natal environment they had, what kind of childhood they had, and if it affected their stature,” explains Hale.
To find out where the person was from as well as confirm the sex, the scientists take almost three-dozen measurements of the skull. The information is entered into a database called 3D-ID, which Dr. Ross helped develop. The program compared the features of the cranium with those taken from people around the world.
“We were able to establish the victim was a Hispanic male,” says Dr. Ross. "One of the things we looked at was the shape of the face, the shape of the nose; we digitized him and took measurements off of his skull. His measurements allocated, or classified, him as South American."
The pelvic bones also indicated the victim was a male. The femur indicated the victim was about five feet five inches tall, which correlated with the population of Chile. The victim’s missing teeth indicated poor nutrition. A fusing of the base of the spine indicated he suffered from the early stages of spina bifida, which correlates to poor pre-natal health.
The scientists also analyzed the chemical composition of the man’s bones, which reflects the drinking water where he lived. Since none of the chemical signatures in the bones are found in the water in North Carolina or anywhere in the United States, it is likely the man moved to North Carolina less than five years before he died.
The focus of the analysis, which can take up to eight weeks, is as serious as murder, but the remains are never treated as just a case number.
“It’s important to stay grounded and remember that they were a person like you and me,” says Dr. Ross. “What’s changed to make that any different? So you have to keep that level of respect for that person.”
“We work carefully and thoroughly and take as long as we need because these bones belong to an individual and they have a story to tell,” adds Hale. “I think about how I would want to be treated if I were on that table, and I would hope it would be the same way I would treat another individual’s remains.”
It is challenging work. Some people might call it gruesome. There are instruments in the lab to deal with human remains that aren’t fully skeletonized. But just as every person is unique, each case is unique.
The goal is to use science to bring resolution to someone who no longer has a voice. The information gathered from the bones of the murder victim from Chile will be passed on to authorities. They will use it to help identify the victim and solve his murder.
“You wonder what made you get to a point where you could do such a horrific thing to a person,” says Ross, as she jots down information on a clipboard. “The worst thing for me is cases involving children, people doing horrible things to children, because a child never puts themselves in a situation, whereas an adult can make some bad choices. So I lose sleep over those cases.”