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Skeletal Analysis after Crimes Against Humanity and Genocides: Implications for Human Rights

Julie Fleischman is an Anthropology doctoral student at Michigan State University. She is completing her dissertation research on human remains from the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia; she is focusing on the skeletal injuries as well as how the remains are understood in contemporary Cambodian society. Her primary research interests include forensic anthropology, human rights, and skeletal trauma.

What are the scientific and social ramifications of working with human remains from crimes against humanity, genocide, or other mass atrocities? This essay will discuss the intersection of human rights and anthropology following mass violence with respect to human skeletal remains, using Cambodia as an example.

Modern human skeletal remains resulting from genocides, violent conflicts, and mass disasters are primarily analyzed and documented by forensic anthropologists, whose skills have been applied to this work for several decades, often providing information that is otherwise inaccessible. [1, 2] Forensic anthropologists are regularly responsible for the exhumation of (mass) graves, analysis of human skeletal material, collecting and analyzing ante-mortem (before death) data to assist with the identification of decedents, and providing legal testimony. Skeletal analysis includes establishing a biological profile (i.e., estimations for age-at-death, sex, and stature, and the determination of ancestral origin), assessment of traumatic injuries and pathologies, and notation of any other pertinent skeletal anomalies. [3]

In the context of genocide and/or human rights violence, the work of forensic anthropologists can provide scientific evidence suggesting the cause of death, as well as biological information that may lead to personal identifications. Additionally, forensic anthropological analyses of traumatic injury patterns can contribute to geographic and temporal comparisons of mass violence. For example, when forensic anthropologists make population-level assessments (i.e., collectively accounting for the injuries of an entire group of victims rather than analyzing one victim individually), the global nature of genocide and human rights violence can be evaluated. [4]

Mass Violence and Human Remains in Cambodia

Led by the infamous Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime came to power in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in April 1975, establishing the government of Democratic Kampuchea. [5] Conditions in Democratic Kampuchea were severe; nearly all Cambodians were forcibly transferred from cities to the countryside to participate in collective agricultural projects. Historical estimates state that during the three years, eight months, and twenty days of Khmer Rouge control, approximately one quarter of the Cambodian population died from mistreatment, overwork, malnutrition, disease, and violence. [6] In January 1979, the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by the Vietnamese.

After the Khmer Rouge regime ended, citizens and local authorities exhumed hundreds of thousands of human remains from mass graves across the country. Despite these remains being disinterred, they were never scientifically analyzed—until three years ago. In 2013, with permission from the government, a Cambodian team of researchers began to document the physical violence inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Human remains, in contrast to eyewitness accounts and historical records, can provide direct evidence (i.e., distinct skeletal injuries patterns) of traumatic events that can be assessed to discern human behavior, one of the key principles of anthropology. [7] Human skeletal research is, therefore, vital for a more comprehensive understanding of this time period in Cambodian history.

Ideological Controversies

In Cambodia and other countries, however, the exhumation of mass graves from recent violent atrocities, the analysis of the human remains found within, and the ensuing disposition of these remains are not without controversy. Due to the politically, ethically, culturally, and religiously sensitive nature of human remains resulting from mass violence, genocide, or crimes against humanity, research access is often limited or non-existent. For example, as mentioned above, the Cambodian government only recently granted permission for large-scale analysis of skeletal remains from the Khmer Rouge era. Given the disparate political, socio-cultural and religious contexts of post-atrocity nations, research utilizing human remains from these circumstances must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Decisions regarding access to the remains and the ramifications of research should include governmental, religious, scientific, and familial/community parties.

Prior to the excavation of mass graves and the disinterment of remains, anthropologists and other scholars have begun to discuss the conflicting desires and ideologies of forensic anthropologists and non-scientists. As Rosenblatt and Crossland note, for example, justice, evidence, and truth are not homogeneous concepts among social, religious, and political groups. [8, 9] In many post-atrocity nations, as Rosenblatt states, religious leaders citing various beliefs have objected “to exhumation, autopsy, and other forensic practices, even when the mass graves in question contained crucial evidence of atrocities committed against their own members.” [10] The division between religious groups and forensic investigators is not that the forensic teams are disrespectful of the dead; rather, it is the notion of profaning the graves (often considered to be sacred places) and disturbing the bodies (and souls/spirits) residing therein. [11]

Another example of contested forensic work is discussed by Crossland. [12] Although politically sanctioned, the exhumation of Argentine mass graves in the 1980s and 1990s were opposed by mothers of the missing and other surviving relatives. These familial parties argued that forensic disinterments were definitive indications that their “disappeared” relatives were deceased; until the perpetrators were held accountable, the mothers wanted to remember their children as alive rather than dead. These are merely a few examples of contested ideologies and spaces in which forensic anthropologists often work that must be considered before any forensic investigation or analysis of human skeletal remains commence.

Finally, disposition of the exhumed remains can be fraught with controversy. Are remains to be buried or cremated in keeping with local traditions, or are they to remain unburied for scientists to analyze or for memorialization? In many post-atrocity nations, disinterred human remains are reburied; for example, in Guatemala and Bosnia-Herzegovina, remains exhumed from mass graves are later buried in accordance with local and religious customs, and often as a means to counter the disorder of the mass violence. [13, 14] However, in other countries including Cambodia and Rwanda, human remains are publicly displayed. [15]

In Cambodia, the display of Khmer Rouge era human remains at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum came under scrutiny by the late King Norodom Sihanouk. In 1980, when Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21, the highest level Khmer Rouge security and detention center in Phnom Penh) was converted into a museum, a map of the country was created and hung on the wall in the museum. Unlike other maps, this one was fashioned out of 300 human crania and other human bones exhumed from Khmer Rouge mass graves.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, King Sihanouk was publically vocal about his dislike of the Tuol Sleng map. Employing religious discourse in 2001—in contrast to the governmental rhetoric of “human remains as ‘evidence’”—the King requested that the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims be cremated in Khmer Buddhist tradition to honor the dead and allow their spirits to be reincarnated. [16] Citing deterioration of the bones rather than political or religious concerns, the map was finally dismantled by the Museum in 2002.

Although forensic anthropologists have been involved in the investigations of genocide and crimes against humanity for many decades, the merging of human rights and forensic science is still developing. Ideological discrepancies between familial, local, international, political, religious, and scientific stakeholders will continue to pose challenges to the excavation of graves resulting from mass violence, the analysis of the disinterred remains, and the disposition of those remains.            

It is truly regrettable that genocides, crimes against humanity, and other episodes of mass violence have occurred in the past and continue today. Although forensic anthropologists are not positioned to prevent such atrocities, they can contribute pertinent information so the victims are not forgotten. Despite more than 30 years passing between the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and the initiation of skeletal analysis in Cambodia, these data are important reminders for current and future generations. While the display of human remains in Cambodia—and the exhumation and disposition of remains in other countries—may be contentious, the questions and issues arising from working with atrocity-derived human remains are valuable and must continue to be discussed by the forensic science and human rights communities.


[1] Forensic anthropology is the application of human osteology (the study of the skeleton) to medical and legal issues and contributes to the identification of missing persons.

[2] Anthropologists first became involved in human rights work in 1984 when they joined other forensic professionals to investigate the “disappeared” from Argentina’s military dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. See: Dawnie Wolfe Steadman and William D. Haglund, "The Scope of Anthropological Contributions to Human Rights Investigations," Journal of Forensic Sciences 50, no. 1 (2005): 1.

[3] Dawnie Wolfe Steadman, "The Places We Will Go: Paths Forward in Forensic Anthropology," in Forensic Science: Current Issues, Future Directions, ed. Douglas H. Ubelaker (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013).

[4] Debra A. Komar and Sarah Lathrop, "Patterns of Trauma in Conflict Victims from Timor Leste," Journal of Forensic Sciences 57, no. 1 (2012): 5.

[5] “Khmer Rouge” is the French derivative of “Khmer Kroham” or “Red Khmer.” This term was first used by Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s to describe Cambodian members of the Communist party. Khmer Rouge can refer to the regime, as well as to individuals who worked for the regime, also known as cadre. Meng-Try Ea, The Chain of Terror: The Khmer Rouge Southwest Zone Security System (Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2005), xii.”

[6] Ben Kiernan, "The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80," in Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial & Justice in Cambodia & East Timor (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008), 270-71.

[7] Dennis C. Dirkmaat et al., "New Perspectives in Forensic Anthropology," Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 51(2008): 38.

[8] Adam Rosenblatt, "Sacred Graves and Human Rights," in Human Rights at the Crossroads, ed. Mark Goodale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 125.

[9] Zoe Crossland, "Evidential Regimes of Forensic Archaeology," Annual Review of Anthropology 42(2013): 131.

[10] Rosenblatt, "Sacred Graves and Human Rights," 125.

[11] Ibid., 132-33.

[12] Zoe Crossland, "Violent Spaces: Conflict over the Reappearance of Argentina's Disappeared," in Matériel Culture: The Archaeology of Twentieth-Century Conflict, ed. John Schofield, William Gray Johnson, and Colleen M. Beck (London: Routledge, 2002), 119-23.

[13] Victoria Sanford, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Maggie Jones, “The Secrets in Guatemala’s Bones,” The New York Times Magazine, June 30, 2016,

[14] Sarah E. Wagner, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (Berkeley: University of California Pre, 2008), 204.

[15] For an informative comparison of the presence of remains in Cambodia and Rwanda, see Elena Lesley, "Death on Display: Bones and Bodies in Cambodia and Rwanda," in Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights, ed. Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius C.G.M. Robben (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 213-39.

[16] Wynne Cougill, "Buddhist Cremation Traditions for the Dead and the Need to Preserve Forensic Evidence in Cambodia," Documentation Center of Cambodia,; Rachel Hughes, "Nationalism and Memory at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes, Phnom Penh, Cambodia," in Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (London: Routledge, 2003), 185.

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