The Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) is working on multiple interdisciplinary collaborative projects that focus on locating missing individuals, estimating how long they have been deceased, and interpreting trauma.
One team is working in forests, terrain that typically hinders recoveries of human remains due to the density of ground cover that hides visual clues to their locations. By identifying the ways in which human decomposition affects plants growing in close proximity, and how these effects might be detected through changes in plant growth, spectral characteristics of their leaves, and other biochemical changes, the research teams seeks to turn trees from foes to allies. The project is equipping drones to fly over forested areas with arrays of sensors that detect subtle, localized changes within forest canopies that can be used to detect the presence of human remains. The results will be of immense value in using plants to aid in forensic recovery. The team is led by anthropology faculty members Amy Mundorff and Dawnie Steadman, Neal Stewart of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Department of Plant Sciences, and includes other faculty and staff within these departments and with the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science and the Department of Food Science. It is funded by the Department of Defense and USDA Hatch grants.
Two projects funded by the National Institute of Justice tackle some of the most difficult problems in forensic anthropology – estimating how long individuals have been deceased (postmortem interval) and interpreting trauma after burning.
The first project examines how medications in the body impact decomposition rates by studying the drug effects on insects and microbes that feed on the body. Current methods of postmortem interval estimation will need to be modified if it is found that drugs increase or decrease insect development rates. This team is led by Dawnie Steadman, Shawn Campagna from the chemistry department, and Jennifer DeBruyn from the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science.
The second project is developing a protocol by which blunt force injuries sustained at the time of death can be discriminated from fractures produced by burning. Fire is often used to cover up a crime and the damage to the body can be extensive. This study, led by Giovanna Vidoli and Joanne Devlin, with assistance from colleagues in the Tickle College of Engineering, uses radiography and microscopic techniques to help characterize fractures that are due to blunt force trauma and those created by burning.
Another project, funded through a graduate student-faculty research award, seeks to more accurately predict the probable location of drowning victims and others whose remains are moved by the flow of water. Working with faculty mentor Dawnie Steadman and Nicole McFarlane from the engineering college, Karli Palmer will create “smart” manikins that can be placed in natural bodies of water and tracked for hours or days while collecting quantifiable, replicable data on their movement. Knox County Rescue is also assisting with the field testing. This project will indicate which variables impact the movement of human remains in water and will allow for more accurate predictive models for recovery. In addition, the manikin may serve as a prototype that could be used by future investigators seeking to find missing persons. The ability to narrow down the search area would increase investigators’ chances of success in locating the remains and reduce the labor and resources required.
While training was certainly impacted by COVID-19 this year, the FAC created a new partnership with the Mexican government to train their investigators tasked to locate and recover human remains from mass graves throughout Mexico, many of whom are civilians killed by drug cartels. In addition, Giovanna Vidoli was invited by the International Committee of the Red Cross to go to Mexico to assist with in-country training. Further, Joanne Devlin and Giovanna Vidoli were invited to attend the first half of the FBI Emergency Response Training.