Let the Bones Talk’ Is the Watchword for Scientist-Sleuths

When the FBI moved in across the street 60 years ago, Smithsonian anthropologists began a tradition of helping to solve crimes

Nowadays when human bones are found, physical anthropologists are called in to help identify the remains and discover anything they can about the cause or circumstances of death. Two Smithsonian anthropologists do forensic work, ranging from identifying bones at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, to helping convict a police officer of murder with only bits of bone the size of pencil points to go on. Police work helps them do a better job with their scientific research, the anthropologists say, and it is those research skills that police departments and medical examiners come to enlist. Douglas Owsley and Douglas Ubelaker are carrying on a tradition that began in the 1930s when the FBI moved into new quarters across Constitution Avenue from the National Museum of Natural History. The tradition will continue: in any given year, half a dozen graduate students are training there.

The two skulls pictured below are kept at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to assist anthropologists doing forensic work. That on the left is of a 27-year-old woman who died of causes having nothing to do with the head. The gaping hole in the skull on the right, that of a 30-year-old man, is the exit wound inflicted by a gun shot. The skulls are part of the Robert Terry Anatomical Collection, which consists of 1,600 skeletons about which the age, race and sex are known. Collected by two St. Louis medical school anatomists, they are used as the basis of comparison for skeletons under study.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.