The Science Of How We Decompose And What We Can Learn

TERRE HAUTE, Ind –   Dawnie Wolfe Steadman’s investigations of mass graves, war crimes and genocide have taken her around the world. On March 1st she will be on the campus of Indiana State University to take part in the Wittman Lecture Series.

Wolfe Steadman is director of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Research Center, which was the original body farm – a research facility where human decomposition is studied.

She will share how her research is applied to human rights violation investigations worldwide during a public presentation at 7 p.m. in University Hall Theater as part of the third annual Wittman Speaker Series.

“The title of my talk – ‘Raccoons, Mass Graves and Drugs: Multidisciplinary Research at the Body Farm’ – is intentionally broad and ambiguous, as I want to give a general overview of what the Body Farm is, perhaps do some myth busting as well, some of our current research and the real-world implications of this research. Curiously raccoons figure prominently,” she said. “I’ll also demonstrate how the work we do at the Body Farm informs human rights investigations, which brought me to the field of forensic anthropology to begin with and in which I am still active.”

Wolfe Steadman is a board certified forensic anthropologist who consults for medical examiners and law enforcement across the nation. She is also author of “Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology.”

“Human rights investigations, namely involving the exhumation of mass graves, identification of victims and documenting trauma to the remains, utilizes every aspect of forensic anthropology training – excavation, identification, postmortem interval estimation and trauma analysis. Therefore, the research we do in these areas directly informs these investigations,” she said. “In addition, we have worked with technologies that can help us find graves remotely. We can potentially do a lot of searching for graves from my campus office in Knoxville with less time on the ground in ongoing conflict situations.”

Wolfe Steadman became interested in the field after one of her anthropology professors at the University of Arizona gave a lecture on how he had identified victims of a plane crash.

“He showed how he could scientifically identify them from their skeletal remains and talked about how important it was to the families that they received the identified remains for funerals. I was enthralled by how science could solve such a problem and the societal impact to grieving families, so I added anthropology to my list of majors so I could learn more,” Wolfe Steadman said.

She went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she had the opportunity to go to Argentina to work with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. They were exhuming mass graves of thousands of individuals who had been “disappeared” by the Junta (military) government between 1976 and 1983.

“Working with them solidified my interest in tackling sociopolitical problems by understanding who victims were, how they died and potentially who was directly and indirectly responsible for their deaths,” she said. “Reports produced by the EAAF were eventually used as evidence in war crimes trials against the Junta to demonstrate the fate of some of the disappeared. I have been involved in human rights in different contexts ever since.”