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Bone Specialist On Call

A Smithsonian anthropologist applies his expertise to cases of missing children and disaster victims

The skeleton of a child, 10 to 12 years old, had been found in the desert near Las Vegas, Nevada, and forensic experts had composed a picture of a likely face that matched the skull. The local medical examiners thought the victim was a girl, going partly by the denim shorts and other material found with the body, so the computer reconstruction had long hair and girlish features.

The picture was sent out to police all over the country. Nobody responded.

Then Las Vegas authorities sent the skull to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Virginia. Steve Loftin, one of the center's age-progression specialists, called in David Hunt from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Hunt, an expert in skeletal biology who has considerable experience in forensic anthropology, spent several hours examining the skull—taking measurements, studying the teeth, the nasal opening, the shape of the eye socket, assessing the overall morphology.

"I began looking at the skull," Hunt said, "and in a way it was lucky I didn't have the clothing and other external evidence that the police had, so I wasn't biased. Something about the shape of the head and the dental development suggested it was a boy's."

That was in September 1998. Last June the case was aired on TV's America's Most Wanted. The girlish version, shown first, caught the attention of a man whose 10-year-old son had been missing three years, but he dismissed it because the child was assumed to be a female. Then the show put up an alternative, the center's computer reconstruction of a boy, based on Hunt's analysis.

"The father's heart sank to the floor," Loftin told me. It was the lost boy come to life, overbite and all. Dental records confirmed the match, and another sad and baffling case was solved.

What amazes me is the number of unidentified skeletons found every year in fields and forests around the country. This was the seventh case of the year for Loftin's department, but police attending seminars at the center say that many more human remains are waiting in station storage rooms all over America for someone to put a name to them.

"Hunt is a gold mine resource to the center," Loftin said. "We can't thank him enough."

Sensing that the Las Vegas skull was that of a boy was no mere hunch for Hunt. He has worked with thousands of human remains over the past 20 years—modern, historic, pre-Colombian, prehistoric — and this skull struck him, from certain features, as more likely male.

"In forensic skeletal analysis we use methodologies that are commonly used in archaeological investigations," he explained. A vast forensic database of skeletal measurements at the University of Tennessee aids in the analysis of the gender and ethnicity of a subject.

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