Madeleine Hinkes, A Quiet Passion

Forensic AnthropologyMy favorite heroes/heroines are quiet, unassuming and passionate. A writer can’t help but come into contact with an amazing array of people, especially if the writing project deals with topics that impact us all. Many years ago, I was working on a project that dealt with forensic anthropology. It’s one of those fields that often goes overlooked by mainstream media. Yet, it is a vital, passionate kind of science. It’s a science that speaks for the dead.

During the course of the project, I came into contact with some extraordinary people. They were not simply scientists going about their work. These were dedicated, involved and determined individuals, who deeply cared about the meaning of their work.

One of the forensic anthropologists who moved me was Madeleine Hinkes. The depth of her commitment and her obvious passion impacted me at the time and has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a bit of background about this extraordinary woman, and a letter that she wrote to me in the 1990s.

Madeleine Hinkes holds a Diplomate in Forensic Anthropology from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and has published dozens of important papers in her field. She has worked with the Office of the Medical Examiner in San Diego, Albany, Honolulu, Tucson, and Albuquerque, analyzing human remains and participating in a wide variety of forensic investigations. Hinkes has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and has been involved in many criminal and mass disaster investigations throughout her career. In short, she brings first-rate credentials and decades of experience to her science. However, she also brings something rare and compelling to her work—a deep passion for what she does and an obvious commitment to its social significance. In this sense, Hinkes’ career is an expression of the human side of forensic anthropology—a style and approach that is shared by many of her colleagues.

Here is Dr. Hinkes’ letter. In it, she expressed what her career has meant to her from both a scientific and personal point of view. Despite the chaos and death that naturally surrounds her in her daily work, Hinkes discovered a deep, personal meaning to her science that is moving and inescapable:

You asked if I would tell you something of my career as a forensic anthropologist. Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to be an archaeologist—to dig up dinosaurs, in fact. However, in the Summer of 1973, I found myself in a field school and discovered my first human skeleton. It was 8,000 years old and perfectly preserved. That discovery made all the difference for me and I immediately switched my college major to physical anthropology. Ten years later I earned my Ph.D.

In graduate school, I worked with Walter Birkby, a nationally recognized expert in forensic anthropology. I had the opportunity to serve my apprenticeship with him and also work with the medical examiner in the Tucson, Arizona area. Those years of outstanding training gave me the knowledge and confidence to understand that I could handle any forensic situation that came my way. Since then, I have worked on medical examiner cases for more than twenty years. I’ve investigated homicides, airplane disasters, search and recovery operations, and much more.

Each forensic case is different in terms of the human remains to be investigated and what can be learned from them. These investigations are always fascinating, but sometimes also painful. I try to convey this to my students. I read somewhere that a student once described the human skeleton as bones with the people scraped off, so I try to use that definition in the classes I teach. I tell my students that the job of the forensic anthropologist is to put the people back on the bones. This is the concept of osteobiography—writing an individual’s life history through the skeletal remains. Most people take their skeletons for granted and are surprised at the amount of information contained in them, such as sex, age, race, stature, build, and even more specific characteristics like diseases, nutrition, trauma, occupation, socioeconomic status, and cause of death.

There is a tremendous range of human variation in the skeleton because each of us has a different life history in terms of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, trauma, and occupation. I often meet individuals whose skulls or skeletons I would love to study more closely because of their distinctive characteristics, and it is frustrating to me that the only way I can see my own skeleton is through an X-ray!

I have met many interesting people in my career, like pathologists, dentists, and investigators. I’ve also made some very close friends in strange places—like over an autopsy table. To my mind, the team approach to forensics is indispensable, and the best characteristic a forensic anthropologist can have is flexibility. Every situation is different and a forensic anthropologist can often find herself in some very primitive, difficult situations.

The sights and smells associated with forensic anthropology are distinct and often unpleasant. Much of my education didn’t prepare me for that, but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. I have also learned much about people and the unspeakable things they can do to each other. It’s been quite an education in the real world, and I am much more conscious about my personal safety now.

I enjoy forensic anthropology because it allows me to give something back to society, to help families searching for loved ones, and to solve puzzles with a skill that few others possess (or may not even want to possess). When I first started in this science, there were few women in the field and I enjoyed that aspect of being different. Today, forensics is a very public arena and the expertise of the forensic anthropologist is constantly being tested. I am always learning something new and gaining a deeper appreciation for how different individuals are.

Testifying as an expert witness at trial can be daunting, but it is the ultimate end to a case—testifying to the trauma that led to death. Knowing that the accused murderer is in front of me in court is a sobering experience. As a scientist, I am supposed to be impartial and leave the arguing to the attorneys. However, the cruelty I often see in these cases—the inhuman treatment and indifference for another—should be punished.

I’ve investigated several mass disasters, like the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC8 in Gander, Newfoundland. In that crash, 256 lives were lost and I was instrumental in identifying 70 of the victims. In those kinds of situations, I routinely work at least a twelve-hour shift. The families are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones and the media is constantly pressuring the investigation team for information. In these situations, we cannot make any errors. A misidentification is the worst thing you can do to a family.

I’ve also worked on teams to identify the war dead, spending seven years at the Army’s MIA lab in Hawaii. I have met the sons of dead men who looked exactly like the photographs of their fathers on their military identification. It’s a strange and spooky feeling. Still, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people. They seemed very curious about a blonde, curly-haired American woman in their midst. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Vietnam War when it was happening because I was too young. However, being there and talking to American former prisoners of war stirred me to learn all I could about the War. Each time we sent an identified soldier home to his family, there would be an official ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base. I would attend those ceremonies for the remains of the soldiers I had helped to identify. I don’t think my eyes were dry for a single ceremony. That’s the hardest part of the job—putting aside the clinical detachment and meeting the families and loved one of those men and women whose lives were cut short.

Today, I work on about twenty-five forensic cases a year. Some of them are routine homicides, but others can be quite strange. One of the strangest cases I investigated was the wreckage of a Boston Whaler boat and a gravesite discovered in 1988 on the uninhabited Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The boat turned out to be the Sarah Joe—a fishing boat that was lost off Maui in a storm nearly ten years previously with five men on board. When the grave was investigated, it contained the remains of a man. The questions that raced through my mind were incredible. What happened? How did this boat get to be 2,500 miles from home? Who found the bones and buried them? When? This case was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries because it certainly was an unsolved mystery! When I investigated the Sarah Joe, I had the adventure of sailing on a United States Coast Guard buoy tender through the Marshall Islands to Taongi. I was the only female on board for the four-day mission. The bad news is that I discovered that I get seasick and cannot swim to save my life!

Now, having said all this, I ask you: is there really any other career even worth considering?

The Long Search for Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele

Human history is an infinitely intricate web of wonder and horror, places and people. Nothing in our past leaves us untouched, and much of history leaves us confused—particularly if it involves acts of extreme cruelty, like genocide. It is especially important for us to understand the dark and brutal side of human history if, for no other reason, than to bring some form of closure to our pain and keep alive the hope for a less violent future. That is the reason why the search for Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” became one of the most infamous manhunts in world history.

The search for Mengele spanned not only decades but also continents and cultures. It brought together men and women from dozens of disciplines and nations, all united in a common cause to find the man responsible for hundreds of thousands of brutal murders, and bring closure to those few who were fortunate enough to survive his atrocities. In the end, it was teamwork and science that closed the final chapter on the crimes committed by Josef Mengele—initially, through the work of a group of forensic anthropologists in 1985 and, later, in 1992, by the use of DNA technology.

Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, in the town of Gunzburg, Germany, to Karl and Walburga Mengele. He was the eldest of three boys born in four years (Karl, who was born in 1912, and Alois, who was born in 1914). Throughout his youth, Mengele had a privileged upbringing and proved to be an excellent student and a popular youngster among his schoolmates. A year after his graduation from the Gymnasium in 1930, Mengele joined a paramilitary group. This organization would later be subsumed into the German Army, which swore an oath of personal obedience to their leader, Adolph Hitler—an oath that Mengele also took, only with an extraordinary penchant for brutality.

Mengele continued his education, as well as his military career, over the next several years. However, in October 1934, he was discharged from the ranks of the military because of a chronic kidney ailment. In 1935, Mengele earned a Ph.D. from the University of Munich. Ominously (and indicative of the horrifying philosophy prevalent in Germany at that time), his doctoral dissertation dealt with the determination of politically inspired racial differences based on the structure of the lower jaw in humans.

On January 1, 1937, Mengele was appointed as a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. By this time, his outspoken racist ideology had come to the attention of several high-ranking Nazis. Through his work at the Third Reich Institute, Mengele developed personal friendships with many notorious party officials, who shared his bizarre opinions about racial purity. In May of that year, Mengele formally joined the Nazi party and, a year later, was admitted to the SS.

In July 1938, Mengele was granted a medical degree by the University of Frankfurt. Later that year, he began basic military training with the Wehrmacht. Throughout this period, Mengele was vociferous in his convictions about the superiority of the Aryan race and Germany’s allegedly predestined role in world affairs. These ideas drew him even closer to the inner circle of Nazis, who were already planning for the eradication of millions of non-Aryans in the coming years.

While still completing his basic military service in the SS in 1940, Mengele married Irene Schoenbein. Later that year, he joined the medical corps of the Waffen SS. As the war in Europe spread both East and West of Berlin, Mengele was ordered to occupied Poland, where he joined the Genealogical Section of the Race and Resettlement Office. This was his first direct involvement in what would come to be the routine slaughter of millions of individuals over the next five years.

A year later, Mengele found himself in combat in the Ukraine as a member of the Waffen SS. In June 1941, he was honored for bravery with the Iron Cross, Second Class. Six months later, in January 1942, he joined the Viking Division medical corps of the Waffen SS and earned the Iron Cross, First Class, when he rescued two comrades from a burning tank at the risk of his own life. By the end of 1942, Mengele’s military career and ideology had so impressed the Nazi leadership that he was brought from the Eastern front to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin. With this posting, Mengele was awarded the rank of Captain (Haupsturmfuhrer) and began the serious work of aiding in the implementation of the Nazi plan for the elimination of all Jews and other minorities from the European continent.

Mengele arrived at Auschwitz, the most notorious concentration camp in Europe and the scene of his horrific crimes, on May 30, 1943. There, he conducted unspeakable experiments on twins and other prisoners who suffered from birth deformities or unusual physical characteristics. He also became legendary for his daily selection of those who would live to suffer in the camps or those who would be immediately resigned to the gas chambers. It was during this time that Mengele became known to the prisoners of Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death.”

On March 11, 1944, the Mengeles gave birth to their son, Rolf, even as the fate of Germany was becoming obvious to most Europeans. After the birth of his son, Mengele began to make plans for his eventual escape from Auschwitz, realizing that his life and freedom would soon be at stake as Germany continued to be battered on both the Eastern and Western fronts. On January 18, 1945, Russian troops finally arrived at the Auschwitz death camp, only to find that Mengele had already fled. Almost immediately, he was listed as a wanted war criminal.

Under orders from Berlin, the Angel of Death had made his way to another notorious death camp, Gross-Rosen, just ahead of the Russian Army. However, he could find no safe haven there. Just before the Russians liberated that camp, on February 11, 1945, Mengele again fled, this time exchanging his SS uniform for that of an ordinary German soldier. However, despite his best efforts, Mengele’s freedom was short lived. In June, he was arrested and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp that was located near Munich and run by American forces. Ironically, unlike most members of the Waffen SS, Mengele had refused to allow the usual tattoo of his blood type to be placed on his chest beneath his arm. Since his captors did not see the telltale tattoo, they assumed that Mengele’s denial that he was a member of the Waffen SS (or a war criminal) was true and they released him.

For the next few years, Mengele lived on a farm owned by George Fischer, always avoiding contact with the townsfolk and, for the most part, his family. In 1949, he was finally able to leave Germany and escape to Argentina. However, by this time, he was already the subject of a massive manhunt across Europe.

For the next four decades, Mengele lived in several locations in South America, using a number of aliases, such as Fritz Ulmann, Fritz Hollmann, Helmut Gregor, G. Helmuth, Jose Mengele, Ludwig Gregor, and Wolfgang Gerhard. Over these many years, the Angel of Death was sometimes helped by small groups of fleeing Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers who had also made their way to the very tolerant environs of Argentina, Brazil, and several other South American nations. However, for many of those years, Mengele was on his own, suffering from paranoia, and avoiding contact with all but his most trusted friends.

In 1954, Mengele divorced his wife, Irene, and, in 1958, married the widow of his brother, Karl. A year after that, on June 7, 1959, West Germany formally issued an arrest warrant for the hunted man and he responded by moving once again, this time to Paraguay. For the next twenty years, Mengele changed his residence several times and avoided contact with all but those in whom he had complete trust.

By early 1979, Mengele was living in Brazil and using the alias Wolfgang Gerhard. On the late afternoon of February 7 of that year, at Bertioga Beach in Embu, Josef Mengele drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. His burial in the hills above the beach was a quiet affair, which had been arranged by a female friend named Lisolette Bossert. However, those who continued to hunt the Angel of Death from Europe, Israel, and America knew nothing about the demise of Wolfgang Gerhard.

Finally, in 1985, several clues surfaced that led investigators to Lisolette Bossert and the alleged grave of Wolfgang Gerhard. Bossert had originally told Brazilian authorities that her friend, Gerhard, had simply died of a drowning accident and she had buried him. However, after hours of interrogation, she finally admitted that the man in the grave was actually Josef Mengele. In truth, Wolfgang Gerhard had been an Austrian friend of Mengele’s, who also lived in South America for many years. When Gerhard departed Brazil to return to Austria, he had left his identification papers behind with Mengele, who promptly altered them for his own use and assumed Gerhard’s identity.

As soon as Bossert’s confession was made public, a team of forensic anthropologists and other forensic specialists was assembled to investigate the claim of Mengele’s death. The team included members from Brazil, the United States, and West Germany. In addition, other international organizations, such as the Wiesenthal Center in California, joined in the effort to investigate the grave of Josef Mengele.

A single skeleton was unearthed from the burial site at Embu, Brazil. Investigators were immediately suspicious of the remains and concerned that the individual who had died may not have been Mengele after all. At the time, it was considered possible that the remains in the grave actually did belong to Gerhard, and Bossert’s story had been nothing more than another red herring designed to keep investigators away from the aging Angel of Death. Given the historical importance of Mengele’s life, and now his death, it became crucial to make a final and accurate determination about who had actually been buried in the grave marked “Wolfgang Gerhard.”

Members of the forensics team gathered as much background information as they could about the physical characteristics of Gerhard and Mengele from Austrian and German authorities. This data included a variety of X-rays, military service reports, photographs of the men, and dental charts that could be used for comparison purposes once the remains had been exhumed. Armed with this information, the team removed the bones from the grave and began their examination.

Unfortunately, the skull of the individual in the grave had been severely damaged by the gravedigger when the body was first unearthed. In essence, the skull now consisted of many fragments, some of which were very small. Before there could be an effort to compare the unearthed remains with the data that had been collected by the team, it would be necessary to reconstruct the skull. The German anthropologist on the team, Richard Helmer, agreed to do the reconstruction work.

After several days of intense effort, Helmer was able to produce an excellent reconstruction of the skull. By this time, other members of the team had examined the remaining bones to determine the sex, ancestry, age, and other physical characteristics of the individual in the grave. Now, the team members could compare and coordinate their findings.

The forensic anthropologists on the team were able to determine that the remains belonged to a Caucasian male who stood five feet, eight inches tall. This was a vital piece of information because it immediately eliminated the possibility that the bones belonged to Gerhard, who stood over six feet tall in life. However, the height estimated by the anthropologists matched that of Mengele when he was alive. In addition, the team was able to conclude that the man in the grave had been between sixty and seventy years old when he died, more than ten years older than Gerhard would have been at the time of his death. However, this estimate matched the age range for Mengele when he drowned.

Although the conclusions of the forensic team pointed to a strong likelihood that the man in the grave had been Josef Mengele, they had no solid proof. Among the data that had been provided by the German authorities about Mengele, there were no X-rays of his teeth—a piece of critical information that could prove or disprove the identity of the remains. The team considered their options and decided that they must locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth taken after he left Germany in order to prove their case one way or the other. In addition, they decided to make use of a brand new identification technique that was being developed at the time by Richard Helmer and other anthropologists—photographic superimposition.

While members of the team scoured a variety of locations in South America for X-rays of Mengele’s teeth, Helmer worked on what he needed to perform a photographic superimposition. The anthropologist created images of the skull that he had reconstructed, along with transparencies of the last known photographs of Josef Mengele. When he superimposed the two images, they matched perfectly. Now, the team members were convinced that the man in the grave had been the Angel of Death. All they needed was to match the teeth of the remains with some X-rays known to have belonged to Mengele to validate their conclusions.

Finally, after an exhaustive search that ranged across several South American countries, team members were able to locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth that had been taken by a dentist only a year before his death. The dentist had performed extensive work on a patient he knew as Wolfgang Gerhard. When these X-rays were superimposed over images of the teeth in the reconstructed skull found in the grave, they matched perfectly. Of particular importance, the X-rays clearly showed a peculiar gap between the two front teeth of the patient, which precisely aligned with the gap in the remains and also matched the photographs of Mengele when he was alive.

The forensics team formally announced that they were convinced that the man buried in Embu, Brazil was, in fact, Josef Mengele. Generally, this conclusion was accepted by those who had pursued the Angel of Death for so many decades. However, the nation of Israel refused to issue a public statement acknowledging that the remains were really those of Mengele. Despite the convincing evidence that had been provided by the team of forensic anthropologists, small pockets of doubt still remained.

In 1992, the conclusions of the team of scientists who had first unearthed Mengele’s remains were finally validated beyond any doubt. In that year, Mengele’s son agreed to provide a sample of blood from which a DNA comparison could be made with the evidence gathered from the Brazilian grave. When the two samples were compared, they matched, indicating without doubt that the man in the grave had been Mengele. Finally, nearly fifty years after the Angel of Death had murdered his last victim at Auschwitz, the combined efforts of investigators, scientists, and several governments had paid off. The fate of Josef Mengele had been determined and at least some closure could be brought to the survivors of his countless victims.

The Scientist: Ellis Kerley

The life and times of a forensic anthropologist can be incredibly diverse and fascinating. Ellis Kerley, who is now retired in the San Diego area, had a full career that included some of the strangest and most historically important investigations of this century:

In 1978, Kerley was asked by the U. S. Congress to help with the investigation of the John Kennedy assassination. Some conspiracy theorists claimed that the bodies of Kennedy and his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been replaced by lookalikes prior to their autopsies. Kerley and his associates were able to prove that the remains of the two men were genuine.

In 1980, Kerley was involved in identifying the remains of servicemen who had died in the Iranian desert during the failed attempt to rescue American hostages being held in Tehran.

Kerley was a member of the 1985 team of scientists that determined the legitimacy of the remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi “Angel of Death.”

In 1986, Kerley worked with the team responsible for identifying the remains of the seven astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion.

Kerley was a member of the team that positively identified the remains of the Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, who had been buried in Paris in 1792 and later exhumed in 1913.

Lost in Revolution: The Fate of Che Guevara

English: Che Guevara smoking a pipe at his gue...

In the 1960s, America experienced a significant social revolution, which was led by a burgeoning population of post-war youth that seemed wholly committed to change on a national scale. This broad movement found its strongest supporters on college campuses and among a large number of local, ad hoc activist groups. As with any social revolution, violent or not, the youth movement of the 1960s created and borrowed symbols and icons to represent its cause in the most effective way possible. One of the most popular icons of that time was a man who came to represent the essence of revolutionary change to much of the world—Che Guevara.

During the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s, Ernesto “Che” Guevara became well known throughout Latin America and, ultimately, throughout the world because of his tenacious and sometimes outrageous exploits in support of the popular uprising led by Fidel Castro against the reigning government. As Castro’s deputy and closest comrade in the anti-government forces, Guevara successfully fought alongside the Cuban revolutionaries and eventually became widely recognized as one of that nation’s most revered heroes. However, his destiny and desire was not to remain at Castro’s side after their victory—it was to spread his concept of revolutionary change throughout Latin America. After Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Guevara left the country with a small group of trusted comrades to join their fellow revolutionaries in Latin America in the hopes of bringing the same kind of change to other nations as had proved to be so successful in Cuba.

For a time, reports of Guevara’s whereabouts and activities were sporadic and dubious, although it was assumed that he was organizing his forces for some revolutionary purpose in South America. It was eventually rumored that Guevara was active in Bolivia, attempting to establish an insurgency force of peasants that would be capable of toppling the government and replacing it with a Communist regime patterned after that in Cuba. However, the uprising never happened, and by the mid-1960s Guevara had disappeared from the political scene. Rumors of his death were rampant, but nothing could be confirmed and his name fell into relative obscurity beyond Latin America. However, in Cuba, Guevara was still revered as a national hero and there was a continuing and intense interest in what had become of him.

In fact, Guevara’s fate was already well known to a few, high-ranking members of the Bolivian army. These soldiers knew that Guevara had been last seen alive near Vallegrande, Bolivia—a small town located some 150 miles west of Santa Cruz—and they also knew of his execution. However, this information was classified as top-secret in the Bolivian Army and no one was willing to risk his or her life by divulging it. Still, there were a few clues to Guevara’s demise, if one looked hard enough.

In October 1967, the bullet-riddled body of a revolutionary who physically resembled Che Guevara was inexplicably put on public display at the Senor de Malta Hospital in Vallegrande. No formal statement was made as to the identity of the unknown victim, and no one involved in this bizarre incident seemed willing to discuss it publicly. However, to those who had seen the remains, it seemed likely that they belonged to Che Guevara, who was locally rumored to have been active in Bolivia at the time. The Bolivian Army and high-ranking members of the government remained silent on the issue and, within a day, the body mysteriously vanished from the hospital. After this strange episode, nothing more was heard of Che Guevara for nearly thirty years.

In November 1995, a tantalizing bit of evidence unexpectedly surfaced concerning Guevara’s fate. Mario Vargas Salinas, a retired General in the Bolivian army, informed an American journalist, Jon Lee Anderson, that Guevara’s body had been buried in an open area near the airfield in Vallegrande in 1967. Salinas went on to tell the journalist that Guevara had been captured by members of the Bolivian Army on October 8 of that year in the area of Vado del Yeso, southeast of the Bolivian capital, La Paz. Already wounded and on the verge of starvation when he was captured, the revolutionary and his small band of men were flown 300 miles away, eventually landing at the Vallegrande airfield. The next day, Guevara and his men were executed on the orders of one of the Bolivian Army’s top commanders. According to Salinas, the bodies were then buried in an impromptu grave that had been dug next to the airfield. However, Salinas was unable to recall the precise area where Guevara’s remains were located.

When Anderson reported his conversation with Salinas, the President of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, decided to become actively involved in the matter by establishing a special commission to investigate Guevara’s disappearance. According to Lozada, he felt compelled to locate the revolutionary hero’s remains and provide him with a proper Catholic burial out of respect for his efforts in Cuba nearly forty years previously. Lozada charged the Presidential Commission with the responsibility to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of Che Guevara and oversee any search for his remains. The Commission immediately turned to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) because of the reputation its members had earned while working throughout Latin America on humanitarian investigations. The EAAF was asked to lead the investigation into Guevara’s fate and exhume any remains that could be located near the Vallegrande airfield or elsewhere.

By December 1995, the search for Guevara’s body was underway in earnest. The original forensics team was headed by an Argentinean anthropologist, Alejandro Inchaurregui, who instructed the members to begin digging along a 100-yard by 10-yard area behind the old cemetery at Vallegrande. Because the cemetery was located very near the airfield, Inchaurregui had decided that this was the most likely place for Guevara’s burial site. However, working conditions were made exceptionally difficult by the geography of the area and the persistent, driving rainstorms. In the end, the EAAF team found nothing and gave up on the site. It would later be learned that the anthropologists had searched the wrong area but had only missed their intended target by a few dozen yards.

 The Scientists: Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF)

 In 1983, after years of oppressive military rule, the President of Argentina, Raoul Alfonsin, established a special commission to investigate the thousands of civilians who had been murdered during the lengthy era of human rights violations in that country. The Presidential commission asked for assistance from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist, who answered the Commission’s call for help.Over a five-year period, beginning in 1984, Snow worked to successfully establish and organize the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and train its members. Today, the EAAF is known in many countries throughout the world for its outstanding humanitarian efforts.

The EAAF uses a multidisciplinary approach to fulfill its mission, which involves forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, medical personnel, computer experts, and lawyers working in a team environment to address issues of human rights violations. When investigating any humanitarian issue, the EAAF gathers case histories about the victims as well as the forensic evidence that is traditional in this type of work. The team also does extensive laboratory analysis of skeletal remains to help determine both a victim’s identity and the cause of death.

Since it formation in 1984, the EAAF has grown into an organization that undertakes its work far beyond South America. Members of the team regularly travel worldwide to help with investigations into human rights violations in a wide variety of circumstances and locations.

 Between late 1995 and early 1997, the EAAF continued to investigate the area near the Vallegrande airfield, as well as sites near the hospital where Guevara’s body had allegedly been put on display. However, the anthropologists found nothing of consequence in either location gathered little background information that could lead them in new directions. During this long and frustrating phase of the investigation, several members of the EAAF team came to believe that the Bolivian Army may have been deliberately trying to deceive them in their search for Guevara’s remains, and tensions ran high. However, as matters would later be resolved, the team had simply not been thorough enough in their investigation and had never managed to pinpoint the actual burial site.

In early 1997, the EAAF again returned to the original search area at the Vallegrande airfield. However, on this expedition a team of experienced Cuban anthropologists, which had carefully researched the time period when Guevara had been active in Bolivia, accompanied them. Once again, fieldwork began in earnest. This time, the anthropologists focused on an area next to the airstrip and some fifty meters from the Vallegrande cemetery—the site of the first dig in 1995.

By the end of June, the Cuban team had discovered the remains of two individuals in a grave adjacent to the airfield runway. Within two days, another five skeletons were exhumed from the same site, and one of them was preliminarily identified as that of Che Guevara. A combination of solid investigative background work and the statements of an eyewitness who had helped to bury the body of the revolutionary leader thirty years earlier enabled the anthropologists to pinpoint the gravesite that had remained a top military secret for so many decades.

During the exhumation of the remains, forensic anthropologists were able to determine that Guevara and his men had been executed together and their bodies dumped on top of each other into the carefully prepared grave. This coincided with the statement of the witness that the bodies of the revolutionaries had been tipped out of the back of a dump truck into the grave, which was then covered over with the help of a small tractor. The grave itself measured about 10 meters long, five meters wide, and three meters deep. In all, the remains of seven individuals were removed from the burial site and analyzed.

By the second week of July 1997, Che Guevara’s remains had been positively identified, along with those of several of the others who had been buried with him. Three of the skeletons belonged to Cuban revolutionaries who had joined Guevara in his fatal attempt to foment a peasant uprising in Bolivia in 1967. The others were Bolivians who had joined his cause.

That summer, Guevara’s remains were returned to Cuba, accompanied by all the pomp and ceremony that he would have probably never expected during his lifetime. On October 17, 1997, Ernesto Che Guevara was given an impressive ceremonial burial in Cuba, presided over by his old comrade Fidel Castro. Guevara’s remains were finally laid to rest in the country that had refused to let his memory die and had long since proclaimed him a national revolutionary hero.

Introduction: Untwisting History

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.