A Voice for the Dead: The Forensic Anthropologist
Sitting Down With… Dame Sue Black, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, Lancaster University, UK
Olivia Gaskill | | Interview
Why did you choose to specialize in forensic anthropology?
In many ways, I’ve never really chosen to be a forensic anthropologist. Each time I’ve come to a crossroads in my life, I’ve taken the route I felt most comfortable with. In my third year of university, I had to choose between the two subjects I was good at: anatomy and botany. I couldn’t face naming and drawing plants for the rest of my life, so I became an anatomist and did my research project on human skeletons. When I was allowed to go on a case with my supervisor, I thought, “Can I deal with dead animals? Yes. Can I deal with dead humans? Yes. Can I deal with humans whose death was recent and it’s not just dry skeletons? Yes.”
It’s a great honor to look inside somebody who has given you permission by donating their body to science; all they are asking you to do is learn.
What is your relationship with forensic pathologists like?
It’s very different today compared with the past. The old-time forensic pathologists had anthropological training, so they didn’t need someone else to do that part of the job. But, as forensic pathology and anthropology have advanced, they have diverged slightly – although they still run in parallel. A modern-day pathologist is more likely to recognize that anthropologists have expertise they don’t, and so it has become a strong, valuable relationship where complementary skills are shared between the disciplines.
Tell us about H-unique…
H-unique is a project that allows us to study the anatomical variation of the human hand – particularly when seen in images of child indecency. We know that, for example, the pattern of veins on the back of your hands will not match even those of your identical twin – so when we consider all of the different anatomical features, there is a very good chance that the human hand is unique to the individual.
We’ve created large databases where people upload photographs of their hands and we compare the vein patterns, skin creases, patterns of freckles and pigmentation, liver spots, and size and orientation of scars, and then train a computer to recognize them and search for them. They all have different etiology, so when you combine all of those features, the possibility of a particular hand or forearm being somebody else’s becomes infinitesimally small.
Once we have those algorithms, the police can search the millions of indecent images of children and investigate whether a perpetrator shows up more than once in any of them. And that allows us to connect cases we’ve never been able to before and work across different countries; child sexual abuse is an international crime – so our techniques cannot be limited by our borders.
What was the inspiration for your book, Written in Bone?
Most people know very little about their own bodies and don’t always feel comfortable with the language used in doctors’ offices or hospitals. My area of expertise is criminal dismemberment, so I was able to talk about anatomy in simple language and in segments that people could relate to with their own bodies. I illustrate each body part with cases where that region was important to show that there is no area of the body that is any less important than the others – and so, in forensics, you need to know as much as you possibly can about the human body in its entirety.
What do you think about the blurred line between real life and forensic TV shows – and how does it affect the field?
Humans are innately curious beings who love a good mystery – we are really captivated by it. Most of the time, it’s not about the flashy science – it’s about the story of the victim, the perpetrators, the interactions with the police and the court. Very few people pursued forensics as a career back in my school days but, in the late 1990s, there was a surge of these shows that hooked people and made them consider a career in the field.
What’s the number one prerequisite for being successful in the forensic space?
You need to be curious – to always be asking questions. If you don’t know the answer, then you need to have the tenacity to go and research it. If it isn’t in the literature, go and do it yourself. The innate curiosity of humans drives us all to ask questions and to find answers. Then we must decide if the answers are absolute – which is rare – or whether they’re biased or a reflection of probability.
What single aspect of forensic anthropology would you change, if you could?
I would make everyone study human anatomy and conduct a whole-body dissection. We have good practitioners, but many have only worked on dry bone. Understanding the human body in its entirety makes you a more rounded practitioner.
What advice would you give to those who aspire to a career in a forensic discipline?
Don’t do an undergraduate degree with the word “forensic” in the title. Universities put “forensic” in the title because it attracts students – but, if you’re serious about going into a forensic discipline, nail the discipline first. Be the pathologist, biologist, chemist, physicist, mathematician… Once you’re sure that’s the discipline for you, then look at how you can use it to help the courts.