From a personal perspective, death is the gateway through which we all must pass without any hope of return. It is the end of our personal history. However, death is not the end of history itself. In fact, it can represent the beginning of a new and sometimes stunning understanding of the past that is crucial to our society and the generations that follow us. This is especially true when a death has been wrongful, unexpected, questionable, or remote and inaccessible in location or time.
When we must come to an understanding of a questionable death for humanitarian, legal, or historical reasons, we are typically confronted with many difficult and complex challenges. At times, death occurs in an especially brutal and personal way, and our knowledge of the victim is limited or completely absent. In some cases, death is massive, impersonal, and overpowering in its scope, and its many victims are callously abandoned, forgotten, or their very existence has been denied. In a few cases, key facts about the life or death of a public figure are questioned and the truth of his or her past becomes a critical issue to our national legacy and perspective.
Throughout most of our history, it has proven difficult or impossible to answer the complex, seemingly impenetrable, questions that often arise from uncertain or untimely death. However, in recent years, new and powerful sciences have arisen that allow us to peer more deeply and accurately beyond the gateway of death, even when the event is separated from us by vast distances and time. We are fortunate to live in a society whose science and technology now make it possible for us to look back into history with a more powerful vision than we could have imagined only a few decades ago. Today, we can do much more than merely accept the validity of important historical events because they have faded from our clear field of vision by the passage of time. Now, we can regularly examine many of these occurrences in minute detail and with surprising accuracy. In so doing, we can bring a new level of understanding to history and to the impact these events may have on the future.
Our everyday experience tells us that history is not immutable or infallible, particularly when it involves the troubling issue of questionable or wrongful death. In fact, recent technological and scientific advances in this country have made it clear that rumor, false information, myth, and assumptions regularly distort our view of history. Thanks to the progress in science over the past few decades, we can now answer vital questions about historical figures and occurrences that once seemed completely out of reach.
Pursuing the history of questionable or wrongful death, which regularly involves our law enforcement and judicial systems, demands an exceptionally accurate and reliable accounting of events because the personal and societal stakes are high. Dependable historical data is also vital for humanitarian purposes—as in times of war, natural catastrophe, or similar national upheaval—to address many intensely personal issues that impact our citizens. We sometimes discover that an accurate understanding of historical events and individuals is demanded in order to validate key issues that form the basis for a true national record of our activities. The perplexing questions raised by these circumstances, which have so often eluded us in the past, are now regularly addressed and answered by a relatively new breed of scientist—the forensic anthropologist.
The American Board of Forensic Anthropology defines the work of its members as “the application of the science of physical anthropology to the legal process.” In its most easily understood form, forensic anthropology is the process of identifying skeletal or unidentified human remains for legal, humanitarian, or historical purposes. However, the practice and application of this branch of the science of physical anthropology runs much deeper, and the conclusions reached by forensic anthropologists often profoundly impact our sense and understanding of history. In fact, the work of forensic anthropologists can directly enhance our knowledge of history and put us squarely on a path to the past that may have otherwise strayed significantly.
This seemingly esoteric science frequently plays a key role in solving particularly difficult crimes, especially when the identification of homicide victims represents a crucial issue for law enforcement or judicial personnel. For example, the notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, was tried in 1992 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the slaughter of seventeen victims over a period of years. During the course of his incredibly brutal career of murder, Dahmer had mutilated the remains of many of his victims, including attempts to eliminate evidence by submerging their dismembered body parts in acid. The science of forensic anthropology proved to be a crucial component in the legal case against Dahmer by aiding in the identification process of some of his victims and thereby directly linking him to the murders. The impact of the combined investigation into this notorious serial murder case resulted in Jeffrey Dahmer receiving a prison sentence of fifteen consecutive live terms, or 936 years, for his gruesome crimes.
However, forensic anthropologists do much more than assist in solving violent crimes. In some cases, their scientific and investigative efforts result in a fresh and clearer view of personal and national history, while in others they settle questions of rumor and myth that have long clouded past events. In fact, whenever the death of one or more individuals is obscured by the passage of time or a fundamental knowledge of what has occurred, forensic anthropology regularly provides answers that seem otherwise unattainable. Moreover, the conclusions reached by forensic anthropologists in pursuing their science often clarify our knowledge of history in unexpected and important ways.
The story of the contributions made by forensic anthropology to the evolving understanding of our world, our nation, and our culture is uplifting and fascinating, but it is not complete. This is a chapter in scientific history that is still being written today. At the heart of forensic anthropology lies a rigorous and precise science that is both pragmatic and seemingly mystical to those of us not educated in its ways. Its practitioners undertake an expansive array of fascinating and complex challenges that often seem like thousand-piece puzzles with most of the pieces missing. Yet, these challenges are anything but sterile, meaningless exercises in science for the simple fact that each puzzle was once a priceless human life whose death has been somehow shrouded in mystery, controversy, misunderstanding, or untruth.
Even for those of us who can only marvel at this kind of science, there is much to be said about its meaning in our lives because it is such a uniquely human undertaking. This is a rare endeavor that brings with it both a sense of the personal and the incredible. It is a science that can pass on a special and intimate knowledge to each of us—a way to look beyond the gateway of death and glimpse some of the intimate truth of a human life in a starkly real and revealing way.