You can learn a lot about people's lives by looking at their bones. That has been the basis of AAAS Member Diane France's career as a forensic anthropologist.
Bones can convey what sex a person was — a woman's more generous pelvis, a man's larger jaw — how tall, about how old at death, how active (muscle development and use mark the bones), and perhaps some things about ancestry.
France says, "By looking at facial features and the rest of the skeleton, we can get some idea of how that person may have been identified in life."
France, of Fort Collins, Colorado, specializes in identifying people who have been lost or found in death. She owns and directs the independent Human Identification Laboratory of Colorado, and as a member for more than 30 years of NecroSearch International, a Colorado-based volunteer group, she often searches for people who have been murdered.
"I love the 'aha' moments when I see a clue in the skeleton that leads me to the final answers," she says.
More than once, she has been able to determine crucial circumstances surrounding the death, information that has helped a coroner or medical examiner determine the cause. "One of the most satisfying aspects of my career is to be able to supply answers to the families and to law enforcement," she says. Sometimes those are painful answers for family members to hear, but they almost always appreciate knowing the truth," she says.
It would be grim work for some, but France has always loved bones, from her first encounters with animal remains in the hayfield next to the house where she grew up in Walden, Colorado.
Most of the investigations France works on are cold cases in which law enforcement has run into a wall. In one, in 1992, a NecroSearch team she was part of located the remains of 25-year-old Michele Wallace, of Gunnison, Colorado, who was murdered in 1974. NecroSearch was brought in shortly after Michele's scalp turned up near where she'd disappeared. It was the first time NecroSearch found a body.
The multidisciplinary group, which only goes out in response to requests from law enforcement, has worked in 40 states and several foreign countries, and has found about 10 percent of the bodies it has looked for. France also counts a success when NecroSearch investigators rule out a site as a possible burial ground.
The strangest death she ever came across was a man and a deer who appeared to have died at the same time, months before they were found within a few feet of one another, out in nature in the foothills west of Fort Collins, of no apparent cause — no wounds or trauma to either one.
"That was the weirdest situation I've ever seen," France says.
One of her most memorable experiences was the two weeks she spent volunteering after the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, identifying human remains at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, New York. She worked 13 1/2-hour days in a surreal landscape filled with 40-foot-high piles of debris brought out from the wreckage, bristling with disparate objects — stairwells, toys, pulverized glass. Some of the organic remains turned out to be meat fragments from area restaurants.
The team, which included hundreds of volunteers in gloves and masks and heavy boots, sorted through the debris by hand in hopes of finding remains which France and her professional colleagues would verify and send on for DNA analysis.
"The scene was like something out of ‘Jurassic Park,’ gigantic cranes lifting things up and putting them down in slow motion, and at the same time you had really big pieces of machinery that were constantly making the ground move. Watching all this, it was sensory overload — the sights, the sounds, the smells," she says.
At the end of her two-week stint, France could have volunteered for a second go-round, but she was exhausted by the experience, she says, and went home.
Even day-to-day, France's work, which so often involves homicide, is emotionally draining.
"It wears on you, some more than others. I've had a couple of cases where I've said, 'I don't know if I want to do this anymore.' But if I don't, that's one fewer person to investigate, to provide answers to the family and to society. So I keep doing it. I do things to keep myself healthy, like gardening and horseback riding and hiking, activities that get me outside and put things in perspective,” she says.
Since the beginning of her studies, France has not only loved finding bones, but also uncovering the stories behind them. An elective anthropology class she took while an undergraduate won her heart on the first day.
"There were skeletons laid out on the table, and the instructor was talking about what you could determine by looking at the human skeleton," she recalls. "Within two days, I'd changed my major. I was hooked."