Kate Spradley found her calling when a professor in a biological anthropology class held a bone with a heel fracture, and proceeded to describe details of that person’s life.
Spradley, assistant professor in the anthropology department at Texas State, is helping Latin-American families find loved ones who died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert.
Spradley, a forensic anthropologist, is taking the data she collects from bones of possible migrants and putting it into the world’s first database of skeletal characteristics of Latin-American individuals. The database is funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“So many of the individuals that die crossing, we suspect are not even being sent to a medical office or a forensic anthropologist and that is a big problem,” Spradley said.
Forensic anthropologists only have methods to identify people based on black and white reference samples, said Spradley. She said the skeletons found are not identified as Hispanic, because there is no current data to properly estimate gender and ancestry.
“When you grow up in extreme poverty, you don’t reach your full genetic potential, so a lot of these individuals are very small,” Spradley said. “Even the males are very small by American standards. They also look at the skeleton and say it is a white female when it is probably a Hispanic male.”
Former President Bill Clinton enforced Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, preventing immigration at the United States border near San Diego, California. Spradley said the operation forced migrants to travel through the Sonoran desert, which she said is one of the most deadly places to cross.
Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, said his team finds around 200 suspected migrant bodies a year in Arizona.
Spradley visits Tucson, Ariz. four to five times a year where she helps Anderson analyze the bones and objects found with bodies to determine its race.
“I take each bone and take measurements of it,” Spradley said. “The skull is very important, so I collect 3-D data on the skull. “I can do things like generate models that show the differences between the different groups.”
Anderson said the bones are not the tell-all in determining a person’s ancestry. He said individuals can sometimes be identified by tattoos on the remains.
“There is often a presence of foreign currency in the pockets and scraps of paper or other items that have telephone numbers that are south of the border,” Anderson said. “There are also religious icons found in pockets and backpacks.”
Latin-Americans can search for missing or unidentified persons in the National Association of Missing and Unidentified Persons System where Spradley documents her information.
Spradley said the data is often ineffective, because families from Mexico are not giving DNA samples to be compared to the remains.
“A lot of people in Mexico or Latin American are even afraid to talk to authorities about this or maybe submit DNA, because they don’t want to get in trouble, and they don’t want their family member to get in trouble,” Spradley said.
Spradley said she wants to promote awareness in the Texas-Mexico border region that it is possible to identify a person from skeletal bones. She said the research will give way for anthropologists around the country to have a faster, more accurate way of identifying the skeletons.
Spradley is hoping to identify the remains of between 200 and 300 skeletons.
“Everybody has the right to be returned to their family,” Spradley said. “I think you could consider that a basic human right.”
Francisco Baires, former student of Spradley at the University of Tennessee, said her personal approach has changed forensic anthropology.
“It (a forensic anthropologists’ work) might be done well without much in the way of a compassionate humanism,” Baires said. “However, Dr. Spradley’s work adds a much needed humanism to the realm of forensic anthropology as practiced in the United States.”
Barnes said Spradley’s work helps families move forward after losing a loved one.
“These are not mere numbers or statistics that we are discussing,” Barnes said.”Whether they are the deceased whose remains are being identified, or if they are the family members looking for loved ones, at the end of the day, these are people like you and me, people to be treated with dignity.”