UW Forensics lab investigates human history from found remains

Jan 28, 2012

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It’s been said that dead men tell no tales, but in the forensic anthropology lab at the University of Wyoming, researchers are proving otherwise. Over the winter, Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone paid a visit to the lab, and he brings us this report on what happens when you find a body in the state, and the process on how scientists identify those remains.

TRISTAN AHTONE: The man's body was dug out of a bluff overlooking the site of an abandoned trading post. All that was left of his clothing was a pair of boots and a black felt hat wrapped with a green ribbon. It was clear he had been shot from the bullet hole in the forehead. The rancher who found him called in law enforcement and archeologists, and the body came to rest on a stainless steel table at the University of Wyoming. That was in 1980. From there, archeologists began piecing together his final moments.

RICK WEATHERMON: One of the first shots probably came into the lower arm or the upper leg.

AHTONE: That's Rick Weathermon, a bio-archeologist at UW.

WEATHERMON: That would have put this individual on the ground. He's somewhere in the six-foot-one range, and the direction of the bullet as it went through the skull would suggest that the individual was either taller than him, or he was lying on the ground and somebody was standing over him, which is much more likely.

AHTONE: Weathermon suspects the gunshot to the leg would have caused the man to bleed to death fairly quickly. However:

WEATHERMON: I don't think they waited for that. I think they were hot to get this guy.

AHTONE: The bones tell Weathermon quite a bit. The individual on his table was probably in his mid-to-late 30's, suffered from severe arthritis, had broken five ribs a short time before being killed, was probably stooped over due to a ruptured disk in his back, and had a good deal of upper body strength. As well, when he was buried, he was wearing a wedding band, and behind that wedding band was a black band.

WEATHERMON: It's a Victorian era tradition that you wore a black band behind the wedding band when you are mourning for a spouse and was kind of adopted here. So, he may have lost a spouse earlier and was still in mourning.

AHTONE: The identification of the man was the difficult part. He was found a few miles from Fort Laramie, near the site of an old, frontier trading post. His bones indicated that he was probably of European descent, but one of the best way to find out where a person came from is through their teeth. Enter David Williams, professor in renewable resources and botany at UW.

DAVID WILLIAMS: So a tooth sample is a bone material made of appetite which has oxygen and carbon in it.

AHTONE: Williams says carbon provides insight into what a person was eating when they formed tooth material. Oxygen says something about the water they were drinking.

WILLIAMS: In the 1960’s the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations began a sampling network across the world of collections of precipitation, and those samples have been analyzed for their oxygen and hydrogen isotope characteristics.

AHTONE: This gives scientists access to a rich set of data from different continents on the many chemical fingerprints of rainfall. When compared to data from a tooth sample, it tells researchers where in the world that tooth was formed.

WILLIAMS: So we can use that information on top of the precipitation maps to begin to understand where these people came from and how they were moving across the country.

AHTONE: As for diet, carbon is another fingerprint used to establish origin. In the case of the dead man lying on Rick Weathermon’s lab table, it appears that he was eating a lot of corn when he was born, ruling out Europe as a place of birth since it wasn't being grown there in the 1800's. In 1980 archeologist George Gill helped exhume this body and others from the Bordeaux trading post. Now retired, Gill is well respected in the field of anthropology. Through historical research, frontier journals, bones and science, Gill believes they may have discovered who the dead man is.

GEORGE GILL: There was quite a little population of white traders with Indian wives and this guy looks to be possibly Cy Williams, one of the traders for Bordeaux that was killed up there by some half-breed Indian boys that got kind of crossed with him.

AHTONE: Gill says there are still some questions about the man’s identity, but what he finds most interesting about the site, are the artifacts:

GILL: Little ground stone axe heads but with a set of marbles for these little boys; shoes of European type manufacture and other little things that would be native - just right in the same grave, put right in with the same little guy.

AHTONE: In other words a mix of Euro-American and Native artifacts that seems to represent two cultures coming together through sex and violence on the frontier.  And that leaves Gill with a broader historical question: where did that new, mixed, frontier population go?

GILL: I'd be real interested to dig into our histories and peoples genealogies in the region, or wherever we could find the information, to find out whether most of them ended up within the white population or in the native population later out on the reservation. When two human groups come together, they may fight, but they'll always breed.

AHTONE: According to Gill, the body of possibly-Cy Williams is just another footnote in the brutal story of the American West and human evolution. The different trails that brought settlers from the east coast to the west occasionally converged leaving cemeteries behind, and those that survived the trails, were often incorporated into different genealogical groups like at Bordeaux.

GILL: And that'll tell us a lot about the future and maybe take some of the panic out of some of these people that are so worried that new people will come in and their race will disappear. Well, even if it does, a new one will emerge. If they're well adapted and have offspring, they're going to be part of the picture of the future. It's just a web moving out there.

AHTONE: According to Gill, everybody that shows up in the UW anthropology lab, breathing or not, has a story to tell. This is just one. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Tristan Ahtone.