My work as a forensic anthropologist in Ireland brings me into contact with the remains of those generally described as 'the missing.' Missing persons – or misper as they are often called in Search and Rescue jargon – may have gone missing for various reasons. In most cases, they are found alive and well relatively quickly. However, other cases may turn into long-term missing cases and even missing-presumed-dead cases.
Reasons for going missing vary greatly and can range from accidental/misadventure, self-harm, and self-neglect to foul play. The remains of long-term missing persons may enter the forensic anthropologist's professional sphere in various ways, as mummified or heavily decomposed remains, burnt bodies, or as single bones. Depending on the state of the body, identification methods may have to be modified.
The three primary identifiers according to international best practice are DNA, fingerprints, and odontology. These, of course, only work if we have something to compare them to, in the first instance, something coming from the deceased such as ante-mortem dental records or fingerprints on file. Similarly, with DNA, it is best practice to compare a sample from the deceased to a sample known to have come from the deceased during their lifetime. This could come from a toothbrush, comb, or even medical specimens removed during previous surgery and now may be embedded in paraffin blocks for histopathology. Secondary to that would be a comparison of the deceased's DNA profile of a direct family member, father, mother, brother, or sister. Relatives further removed on the family tree may require other DNA approaches.
In a typical case example, let's say skeletal remains are found. The first step is to ensure all possible human remains have been searched for and collected from the discovery site. Once this has been done, they are transferred to a mortuary where I would clean/wash them and lay them out in anatomical order to catalogue what is present and what is missing. Then, depending on the find situation, I will give an opinion on what is missing, why it may be missing, and what the chances are of further recovery.
After the bones are laid out in anatomical order, I will examine the remains to provide a biological profile consisting of the age-at-death, ancestry, biological sex, and stature of the deceased. I then examine all bones and fragments for signs of illnesses or surgical interventions, as well as fractures. Any fractures must be categorized depending on the timing of their occurrence, antemortem, perimortem, and post-mortem. Of importance for identification are antemortem fractures as they could act as secondary identifiers when compared to medical records such as x-rays and CT scans. Perimortem fractures are important to build a picture of what happened to the deceased around the time of death and if it is suspicious for foul play.
Establishing the biological profile uses non-destructive methods such as observed traits, as well as measurements for statistical analysis.
After this, destructive sampling will take place to include samples for DNA extraction, sometimes radiocarbon dating, and also forensic stable isotope analysis to identify a) where a person might have spent their formative years and b) where they may have travelled from. This is all dependent on what anatomical parts are available for examination and sampling. So, completeness of the remains and the condition under which they were found are very important as fires or water-logged sites may have serious effects on the chances to retrieve viable DNA, for example.
Finally, we may scan the remains and create a 3D reconstruction of the skull to be used either in photo-superimposition of skull and portrait photos of the deceased and a potential target subject or for facial reconstruction to jog someone's memory.
Suppose no local, national hits are forthcoming either from the DNA database or the reconstructions. In that case, the DNA profile and biological profile are usually distributed to the INTERPOL section dealing with unidentified remains for dissemination to colleagues worldwide to see if they may have a person matching the profile.
After that, there is not much else that can be done apart from a regular review of the case and maybe the use of new scientific developments, which may answer some of the remaining questions.
What is clear is that the issue of missing persons is huge and global, demands our attention, and requires dedicated investigative structures. While it could be argued that the missing person is a victim, the families of the missing certainly are victims and should be recognized as such by investigative authorities. Linking known missing person cases or long-term missing persons cases to unidentified human remains discovered in the past should be the first priority and is usually achieved by exhumation of such remains.
What is always foremost on my mind when I examine even the smallest of bone fragments is the thought that somewhere out there may be a family right now waiting for news on their loved one, and I can only hope that my work can contribute to providing answers about the deceased and hopefully lead to a successful outcome. Even if the remains recovered cannot at-first be identified despite best efforts, there is always hope that with time new information may surface and that the advancement of science to provide further answers may finally lead to a positive identification. What is important is that we do not give up but continue in our efforts to provide answers for the families.
Writer: Dr. René Gapert