Students in the new forensic anthropology course searched for bones, cartridge casings and other evidence at mock crime scenes marked by yellow police tape near the McClintock Building earlier this week. They were split into five teams, each of which developed a scenario and created a site for their peers to investigate.
“Ours was a hunter found at the base of a tree who died of exposure to the winter elements,” said student Carina Vowels. “The students had to discern if it was foul play or an accident. The evidence around the tree showed it was an accident and that he fell because he was drunk.”
As they processed the scenes with the aid of a metal detector, cameras and other tools, the students created a sketch of the locations where evidence was discovered, then returned to their classroom to debrief and establish the evidence chain of custody.
Bob Hanson (Criminal Justice) and Scott Demel (Sociology and Anthropology) developed and teach the course as a team.
“Forensic anthropology is a narrow subfield of anthropology,” Hanson said. “It’s often done on a part-time or consulting basis, as needed. But law enforcement agencies rely on people with experience in this field when remains are found in advance stages of decomposition. There are certain things in crime-scene processing, such as the graphic representation of where the evidence is located, that could be more detailed. Anthropologists are highly skilled in detailed mapping.”
Demel was formerly head of collections for the Department of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, where he worked extensively with the human osteological collections. Law enforcement agencies and the FBI have called on his expertise in analyzing forensic evidence. Demel determines whether skeletal remains belong to a human or animal, and might use cultural objects to help identify a person.
“There is some overlap between law enforcement and anthropology, which is why we developed a course for students from both disciplines interested in the methods and techniques,” Demel said. “We’re using an applied approach to provide students with hands-on, experiential learning based more in reality than what they might see on some of the popular TV shows. It went well. They followed the protocol, interacted well with each other and demonstrated teamwork, which is critical to forensics.”
Student Brittany Munger said the exercise “taught us that unexpected things can surface when you’re on the scene and you have to adapt quickly and figure out how to handle those situations.”
This is the first semester forensic anthropology has been offered at NMU. The new archaeology lab in Jamrich, with its various artifact type collections, doubles as a classroom. Demel describes it as the “perfect space” for the class to meet.