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Dawnie Steadman: Working at the Forensic Intersection of History, Crime and Justice

Dawnie Steadman
Dawnie Steadman. Image by Kellie Crye Ward, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Dawnie Steadman is always happy to discuss the activities of the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) and give the general public, or people who are registered to donate, detailed explanations of FAC's research. Many of these people will one day return to FAC - but usually only after death. At that point, the visitors' graciously donated bodies will be placed within the facility, known as the "Body Farm" to help advance forensic science. The data collected there under controlled conditions is used to understand the numerous variables that contribute to body decomposition, ultimately informing criminal investigations and archeological analyses.

As a skeletal biologist and director of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's FAC lab, Steadman wears many hats. She helps educate the public and volunteers about body donation programs; why these programs matter and how they work. She also assists forensics teams in solving crimes and investigating human rights violations around the globe. Her research straddles the intersection of crime, justice, culture and history.

One of the first experiences that led her down this path came in the 1990s. "When I was in graduate school, I had an opportunity to work with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which was actually helped formed by AAAS in the early years," Steadman explains. "They excavate graves — now around the world, but at that time in Argentina — looking for the disappeared. So that really got me hooked on the justice aspect, especially [in terms of] what biological anthropology can do."

From there, her work has taken her to Spain, Cyprus and numerous other places, in the hopes of uncovering the histories of people who suffered from various atrocities. At the heart of this work is understanding people's stories, Steadman emphasizes. "They are individuals with a past, and a history, and living descendants... ultimately what we want to do is understand who these people were and what happened to them."

In Spain, she was part of an excavation to recover bodies from the Spanish Civil War, which left an untold number of people dead and missing in the 1930s. Afters years of fighting between the leftist Republicans and right-wing Nationalists, Francisco Franco, leader of the Nationalist party, assumed control of the country.

"When Franco came into power, he essentially forbade all of the textbooks to give any narrative about the war, except his own, and really promoted a system of forgetting the past," Steadman explains. "Even after he died, there was a general policy of forgetting."

But by the early 2000s, some Spanish people — and especially the descendants of the deceased — began calling for the excavation of the mass graves from the civil war. Some of those in favor of exhumations wanted physical evidence confirming that atrocities occurred, which would pave the way for apologies and/or reparations from the government. Others simply wanted confirmation that their loved one is dead. Steadman and other anthropologists were consultants in this excavation, locating mass graves and identifying the people who were killed. Their work helped bring hard evidence to light of the atrocities committed roughly three-quarters of a century earlier.

Piecing together historic details such as these, which have been buried both literally and figuratively for many years, is no easy task. Steadman's work at the Body Farm in Tennessee aims to improve excavations and forensics techniques in the future.

"We do research and training for the purposes of improving forensic science, by making sure that the science is testable, reliable and replicable," she says. Understanding the limits of the technology will help ensure that the best possible information is presented to judges and juries residing over court cases. And as the technology itself improves, so too will the ability of crime scene investigators to close a case.

Steadman and her colleagues are studying numerous factors that affect body decomposition, including soil composition, microbiome composition and even the drugs that are present in a person's system when they die. This latter factor could be one possible reason as to why, if say several bodies are added to the Body Farm at the same time, some decompose faster than others. Anecdotal evidence hints this could be the case, but no systematic investigation has explored this yet.

Now, with funding from the National Institute of Justice, Steadman and her team have began accounting for medications and other drugs that donors have taken around the time of their death. They are tracking each drug and its metabolites in the body, the body's microbes, the soil, and even the insects that feed on the body.

Uncovering complex matters like this involves a highly interdisciplinary team of chemists, soil scientists, microbiologists, and other experts. "It's these projects that can tackle multiple variables at a time with multiple subject matter experts that are the greatest gift to science, rather than just someone working in their own in silo," says Steadman.

She says she appreciates the multidisciplinary approach that AAAS encourages. "That's why I became a AAAS Member — because of their initial pursuit of getting interdisciplinary teams together to go to Argentina and ultimately form [the Argentine Forensic Anthropology] Team."

In terms of the future of forensic science, Steadman anticipates that the field will becoming increasingly multidisciplinary. "I think collaborative research is the best way forward," she says.

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