One problem facing experts like Hunt is the shortage of identified skeletons of children to study. "Understandably, few families choose to donate their children's remains for scientific research," Hunt said.
A sad business. But the center also finds live children among the almost 6,000 active cases in its files. Fortunately, the great majority of them are rescued alive. About a million children under 18 disappear every year in America, most of them for only a short time: runaways, kids abducted by parents, kids abducted by strangers, and some who are just lost.
Age-progression specialists like Steve Loftin can take a snapshot of a toddler and, on a computer screen, make the child look older ( Smithsonian, October 1995). The expert begins by stretching the child's image on the computer. To mature the face, he merges it with childhood photographs of the parents at the current age of the missing child, borrowing certain features, bringing out the cheekbones, thinning down baby fat and lengthening the jaw. The results can be startlingly accurate and have proved invaluable in rescuing missing children.
Long ago David Hunt knew he was going to be an anthropologist. "I remember reading those articles in National Geographic as a kid in the '60s about Louis and Mary Leakey, the excavations in Africa and Europe — they all fascinated me."
At the University of Illinois he soon found his niche in the study of bones, specifically human osteology and skeletal biology. After receiving his master's degree and doctorate in physical anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Hunt joined the Museum of Natural History staff in 1990.
"It was the ability to derive a synopsis of the life of prehistoric humans from their remains that made me decide to pursue this career," he said. "It's all a big jigsaw puzzle."
It really is. People get buried six feet deep, and the weight of the dirt distorts the skeleton, crushing the skull so that it has to be reconstructed before study can get under way. Even a casket sooner or later will let in water and collapse.
Working on historical cases is interesting, but applied forensics, in which researchers try to match skulls with photographs of actual people, is often more rewarding.
Hunt and his Smithsonian colleagues are on call in the wake of plane crashes and other disasters. They have helped identify bodies in the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco fire and the mass graves of Bosnia and Croatia.
After the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flooded in 1993, and water destroyed cemeteries, washing caskets from the earth and hopelessly jumbling them, Hunt was called in. Working with FBI fingerprint specialists and pathologists and dentists, he helped identify bodies for reinterment.