Anthropology professor creating better way to identify Native American remains
Dr. Heather Edgar’s work expands the number of CT scans available for researchers looking to make positive identifications of deceased people. The sample size in a widely used database is woefully inadequate, leading to delays and in some cases misidentifications of a person’s population affinity.
“It’s not just a duty, but also a privilege to have the opportunity to make a difference,” Edgar said of the work to help solve cases of missing Native Americans.
Editor’s note: This Women in STEM Award winner profile is part of a series of stories that explores what recipients have been working on since the awards began in 2106. Read other profiles here.
By Kate Cunningham / Advance at UNM
Dr. Heather Edgar knows that the work of identifying human remains is not for everyone.
Yet the UNM anthropology professor feels called on to do the sleuthing that leads to matching a body or skeleton with a name, particularly for murdered or missing Native American women.
The task is part of her duties as a forensic anthropologist at New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator. But it’s also more than that.
“It’s not just a duty, but also a privilege to have the opportunity to make a difference,” she said.
That difference, Edgar says, is helping with the staggering number of cases of murdered or missing indigenous women. According to the Native Women’s Wilderness project, the National Crime Information Center reported nearly 6,000 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls.
And while there have been many headlines about the cases, there was not a specific incident that led Edgar to the work. And, oftentimes there is no crime involved in the cases sent to her.
“It’s really just more like sheer numbers,” she said.
“It relates to the remoteness of New Mexico, socio-economic problems, problems related to substance abuse,” she said.
“I know that for each of these individuals for whom I have a body I’m working on, there’s a whole family that would like to know what happened to that person.”
Edgar for several years has been working to improve systems and technology that have hampered identifications. Remains come to the OMI from across the state, including the Navajo Nation. Edgar’s work involves identifying remains for which a normal autopsy hasn’t worked, which could be in part because a body is badly decomposed.
She has received several grants for the work, and is also now using money from her 2020 Women in STEM award to expand the creation and sharing of samples that can be used by researchers worldwide.
The tasks loom large, and new cases come in at a steady pace. About 300 skeletons are unidentified, with some cases dating back to the 1970s. Edgar hopes her work can solve cases that have gone cold as well as more recent deaths.
One challenge to making positive identifications is that a widely used database, for comparing skeletal samples, the Forensic Data Bank, is not representative of Native Americans, having just 59 males and 32 females for researchers to study. The sample also is not representative of contemporary Native Americans, Edgar said.
“Because of this, when we compare individuals, we could well be getting an incorrect answer,” Edgar said. “Specifically, I think they are being misclassified as Hispanic.”
Another challenge with the database comes when researchers use a skeleton’s stature as one piece of the identification puzzle. Femur and tibia measurements can be entered into the database and compared with known groups for help deciphering clues about someone’s demographic. It uses a formula to generate height estimates based on the measurements.
“But it only works for Black males, Black females, white males, white females, because they just don’t have other groups (in the database),” she said.
One reason is that Americans of European descent are more likely to donate their bodies to science for research, Edgar said.
“There’s a really good reason why that sample is so small, and it has to do with a long standing, well earned distrust of science among Native Americans,” she said. “There is no reason why Native Americans should trust science in America because they have consistently been used and abused by that process,” she said.
In 2017, Edgar began work on a new database with National Institute of Justice funding that includes full body scans of 1,800 de-identified contemporary Native American bodies over age 15, along with scans of almost 14,000 other individuals. Already, more than 450 researchers are signed up for that database, with 200 active users. Eventually, Edgar and her team will provide data gathered from these scans to the Forensic Data Bank to improve the sample size.
Edgar is using money from the Women in STEM award to create the process for sharing the data with the Forensic Data Bank, and plans to share up to 250 in the pilot project alone.
“When we add 250, that’s a huge improvement.”
The Women in STEM award also has allowed Edgar to hire a graduate student and three undergraduates on the project. There were more than 100 applicants for the jobs, she said.
One of the students is Nikki Appel, a first-year PhD student in anthropology who is focusing on evolutionary anthropology.
Appel said it has been gratifying to work with Edgar as a new student at UNM, and to see so much progress being made on the project, including getting data ready to be analyzed this summer.
“So to get here and see all the hard work really pay off is definitely gratifying,” she said.
She also has gained valuable skills including working with CT scans and 3D data, which play a part in the emerging field of virtual anthropology.
“Learning these skills will definitely benefit me in the future. I am sure I will continue to use this type of data in my future research, and now I can build off what I learned from this project,” Appel said.
Beyond the benefits to New Mexicans, Edgar and her team hope their work helps people in other states to more quickly and easily identify remains.
“If we’re in bad shape, then you know who’s really in bad shape are people in the Dakotas, people in Alaska, people in Washington State, people even in Oklahoma, who knows,” Edgar said.
As she works on body scans at the OMI, Edgar keeps the importance of the work in the back of her mind, knowing the science could provide crucial information to families who have lost someone.
“Having these images and data is going to make a real difference,” she said.