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Forensic Anthropologist Works to Identify Human Remains Along Border


You can call her a real life "Bones." A young forensic anthropologist at Texas State University is doing cutting-edge research on remains found along the US-Mexico border.

Dr. Kate Spradley believes that a single human bone can say a lot.

"It can tell us the geographic origin of the individual, where their ancestor origins lie," and she says that's why she became a forensic anthropologist. "I took an intro to biological anthropology class and my professor held up a bone and started telling the life history just from that one bone and it really fascinated me."

Now, this Texas State University professor is doing some revolutionary research on bones, specifically helping to identify remains found along the boarder.

"It's very important to get these individuals identified and returned to their families," said Spradley.

Currently, the Forensic Anthropology Center has more than 60 cold cases that anthropologists are working to identify. A number of them are migrants trying to cross the boarder, including people trying to cross the Texas-Mexico boarder.

Historically, unidentified remains found in the U.S. have been classified as white or African American, leaving out a large portion of the population.

"Over 50 percent after re-analysis have been identified as Hispanic. So for a long time, lots of unidentified remains sitting in Medical Examiner’s Offices, on shelves, many are probably Hispanic and have never been identified as that," says Dr. Spradley.

She works with medical examiners along the boarder and travels to Arizona several times a year to examine remains.

"The cause of death is typically exposure, hypothermia or hyperthermia, dehydration. You have more deaths there every year," said Spradley.

While her work is paving the way for future research on migrants, it also has become much more than that. As she analyzes their bones, Dr. Spradley often develops a connection.

"Inevitably I do, especially with working with migrant remains, it's become very personal," said Spradley.

She's made it her mission to help families gain closure by identifying and returning remains. From in the lab, to out in the field, Dr. Spradley and her team of graduate students are learning how bodies become bones at the Texas State Human Decomposition Facility, or "body farm."

On the Sprawling Freeman Ranch, trees and brush initially conceal what's behind a five-acre portion boarded by a locked gate. There, human bodies are left outside to decompose, allowing researchers to study what happens to bodies after death.

"Lots of people make predictions, but here we get to test to see if they hold up," says Dr. Spradley.

This is a place where people have donated their bodies to be put in all kinds of situations, and studied.

"We monitor the decomposition process: what date did we put them out? What's the season? Temperature. Rainfall," said Spradley.

Some bodies are in cages, preventing living creatures from getting to them, like vultures.

"They rendered this individual to a complete skeleton in five hours and then they kept coming back and dragging the person's body," said Spradley.

Other bodies are buried.

"Here's one of our burials over here and we use these burials for law enforcement training to teach them proper excavation techniques," said Spradley.

Since 2008, dozens of people have signed up to donate their bodies to the university, including 67-year-old Grady Early, a former Texas State Professor.

"I was all for it, all for it," he tells FOX 7.

He was one of the first to put his name on the donation list for the body farm, or as he calls it, “body ranch”

"This being Texas I call ours the body ranch," said Early.

He knows his decision to donate is the right one for him.

"It is an extremely personal decision, what you do with your body or wish to have done to your body after death," said Early.

"They feel strongly they want to contribute to forensic science to forensic anthropology in general, they know exactly what's going to happen to them after death and they're very excited about it," adds Dr. Spradley.

All of the research done here at the body farm, or body ranch, is to help anthropologists in their work to identify remains. That's not to say the university hasn't received some criticism for it.

"Occasionally we do get some backlash, we had someone write a letter to the university stating they didn't think this was a good thing to do, they couldn't believe we were doing this to human bodies," said Spradley.

While some may question it, researchers and those donating their bodies believe they are doing a service in the name of science.

"I think people ought to be useful in life and if you can extend that to be useful after death, what a great thing," said Early.

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