Central Texas anthropologist making forensic breakthroughs




Posted on January 21, 2011 at 6:35 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 21 at 7:20 PM

A breakthrough in forensic science is happening in Central Texas. Forensic anthropologist, Kate Spradley, Ph.D., is studying human remains found along the United States border with Mexico and she is determined to find out who they are.

Spradley works at Texas State University in San Marcos and she has created the world's first database of skeletal information on Hispanics.

“This project has several goals and one is to identify the individuals that cross the border and most of the individuals are from Mexico, some are from Guatemala, or El Salvador. So the database, hopefully, will be able to help establish where a person is from, which will expedite a positive identification and also be used by the forensic anthropologist in the United States to identify someone as Hispanic.”
The bones of deceased border-crossers are often times never identified. Spradley's mission is to give these individuals a voice.
“Being positively identified and repatriated to your family is a basic human right and the data was just not out there to do that before,” Spradley said.
The National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, awarded Spradley with a $150,000 grant and named it “Project Identification.” As part of that grant, she travels out-of-state to gather information.
“I go to Arizona about four to five times a year because this is where most migrants die trying to cross the border,” Spradley said. “Once the remains come in to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, they’re analyzed there and they are held there for me so I can go and collect all of my data. This has the potential to identify hundreds or more individuals.”
Spradley said there is a lot of research on the bones of Caucasians and Africans, but until now, there has not been consistent data on Latin skeletons and they are commonly misidentified.
“Often times the migrants that cross the border don’t have enough nutrition, so they don’t grow to their full potential and they’re often smaller. So, for that reason, males are often misidentified as females and if we can’t get the sex right then we're not going to identify the individual.”
Plus, it is difficult when there are only three medical examiners along the entire Texas-Mexico border. Spradley said that is where her team can help identify any human remains found.
“If it is sent to a Medical Examiner’s office it is given an analysis and sent for DNA analysis and put into the NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), but we suspect there are a lot that are not being handled in that manner and we would like to help," Spradley said. "We will do all skeletal cases that are found along the border for free."
Spradley’s colleague, Michelle Hamilton, Ph.D., explained the importance of this type of research.
“It will extend to all 50 states in the United States, where we’re seeing people of Hispanic descent starting their lives,” Hamilton said. “This will also apply to areas south of the U.S. border and that is, anything we can do to try to build standards, to identify folks from their bones will help identify them wherever they are. So, if someone disappears in Mexico, this research will have application for individuals of Mexican descent.”
To Spradley, every bone is like a piece of a puzzle that helps tell a larger story.
“It is very rewarding to give closure to a family, to repatriate a loved one back to their family, especially a loved one who, right now, has very little chances of being identified,” Spradley said.