When a skeletonized body turns up, medical examiners often have difficulty determining the victim’s identity and place of origin. For these challenges, they call on experts like Amanda Ross, a professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University, to help with the clarification.
The New York Times recently published an article on the contribution of 3D ID, software developed by Ross to analyze skull features, in decoding the identity of the original “Jane Doe.” While the Florida cold case still remains far from solved, investigators have a markedly different picture of the victim, pointing to European rather than Native American origins. Many of the groundbreaking results came from the primary analysis of remains by forensic anthropologists.
Previously, examiners have had to rely on calipers to measure the distances of a skull’s facial features. But now, by relying on a digitizer with a robotic arm to collect measurements as coordinates, 3D ID takes a richer amount of information to compare against a database of known skulls and their associated populations.
“You get complete biological information for the digitizer whereas you don’t get that using calibers,” Ross said.
3D ID can pinpoint the closest ancestral population from which the victim originated, and the software incorporates a greater set of populations that are geographic in origin as well. With more precise means of determining the population origin of an individual, Ross explained that the previous categorization, used for centuries, is now outdated.
“Usually people have been grouped to the three general categories of European, African and Asian,” she said. “It doesn’t really make much biological sense to use those groupings.”
Ross explained that medical examiners draw a lot of their information and evidence from soft tissue. When remains are in an advanced stage of decomposition or are skeletonized, investigators consult anthropologists like Ross and their resources. In addition to the victim in Florida, Ross has contributed to other cases of unidentified victims.
“We just redid a cold case from 2003 that was deemed by the medical examiner to be Caucasian — terminology we don’t use anymore — and we determined that the individual was Southern American,” Ross said. In another case, the advantages of 3D ID’s coordinate-based system helped pinpoint a child as being of Mesoamerican origins.
Ross brought 3D ID online in 2009 after developing the software with support from a Department of Justice grant. Although its adoption by a wider set of users was initially limited, Ross was able to explain the theory behind and methods of using 3D ID to other practitioners at workshops hosted by the Department of Justice last year.
“It has taken this long to get people to change over from calipers to this more precise information,” she said.
According to Ross, there are plenty of cases around the country where victims turn up without any signs of who they were, especially in cases of undocumented immigrants. The Doe Network states that in Maryland alone, there are 109 John Does and 41 Jane Does on record. Ross hopes that this sort of identity crisis can be remediated in part by better techniques to analyze the deceased’s remains.
“The fact that we have all these people who are unidentified in the United States is a humanitarian issue,” Ross said.
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