The Science Behind Identifying Human Remains

A body in a barrel. Then another set of bones in the lake bed. As the water levels drop in Lake Mead due to drought, the remains of unknown humans who have come to an untimely end are being revealed. And suddenly, the work of anthropology professors like Jennifer Byrnes are in the news.

Jennifer Byrne

Byrnes teaches Forensic Anthropology, Human Osteology, and Introduction to Biological Anthropology at UNLV. Her lab focuses on bioarchaeology, or the study of human remains from archaeological contexts, as well as forensic anthropology, or the medicolegal investigations and research involving modern human remains.

She came to UNLV in 2019. In January 2022 she was awarded a $567,682 grant from the National Institute of Justice to study “Reliability and Validity of Radiographic Comparisons for Positive Identification.” She says her research de ella addresses a substantial gap in best practices in forensic anthropology in positive identification via radiographic comparison. Timothy Gocha, the Associate Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, will serve as co-principal investigator with Byrnes.

It is early in the process, but what will this grant do for your research?

This grant will contribute to an identified research gap in forensic science identification methods as they relate to radiographic identifications. We will identify the minimum educational level/competency that an analyst should have to conduct radiographic comparisons accurately, and we will have recommendations for best practices for those conducting these comparisons. This is important for those who may testify in court on the reliability and validity of an identification they made with this method.

How did you get interested in this topic?

While at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu (UHWO), I was conducting forensic anthropology casework on a decedent whose DNA profile could not be generated for a positive identification. I was subsequently asked to perform a radiographic (x-ray) comparison, which would function as a positive identification for this person. This involves comparing a radiograph taken before death (antemortem) to one taken after death (postmortem) to see if they match. Upon conducting the comparison and reviewing the literature on the accuracy and reliability of using this method, I realized there was a research gap that I could contribute to.

Looking at your background, it reads like an episode of CSI. Are there any comparisons?

While my background working with local medical examiner’s/coroners offices might sound like something from CSI, the majority of the cases I get asked to consult on are more mundane than high-profile homicides. For example, I get asked to consult on whether a bone is human or animal, if human remains are modern or historic, and to provide basic biological profile information on an unidentified individual (eg, assigned sex at birth, age at death, ancestry, height).

There have been some cases that I’ve worked on that were homicides, which typically involve determining the type of trauma inflicted upon the decedent’s remains to support the forensic pathologist’s findings. These could be gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma (eg, fall from a height, motor vehicle accident, struck by an object), sharp force trauma (eg, stabbing, dismemberment), and thermal alterations (ie, burning patterns).

How could this award make a difference in how remains are identified using radiographic comparison?

We are aiming to have recommendations or best practices for analysts, which include how many and what types of matching points in a radiograph should be used. For example, normal human variation accounts for most of what an analyst is looking for between a set of antemortem and postmortem radiographic images. However, there are very few studies that outline the minimum number of matching points necessary to make an identification, and these vary by body region (eg, chest, head, hip).

Why is it important for UNLV researchers to apply for federal grant funds?

I think it’s important for UNLV researchers to apply for federal funding for two reasons: 1) To elevate our research efforts into asking and answering important questions that will impact society and the world we live in positive ways, and 2) To fund and involve graduate and undergraduate students in research that will train them in vital skills that will set them apart from other students in their cohort, as well as to hear their perspectives on new and innovative ways of thinking about the research problem/question for future projects.

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