INSIDE Chico State
0 May 2, 2002
Volume 32 Number 15
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Forensic Anthropology
Cuts Straight to the Bone

Turhon Murad and P. Willey, CSU, Chico’s forensic anthropologists, look at the fused vertebrae from an unidentified man.

Photo by Jeff Teeter

Murder, bones, and humankind’s preoccupation with puzzles lured attendees to an annual forensics conference held on campus this spring. The conference, keynoting five nationally preeminent forensic anthropologists, was organized by graduate anthropology students. The guest speakers presented the scientific aspects of mortal remains as seen through such disciplines as taphonomy, forensic dentistry, and criminal profiling. The conference highlighted professional applications for course work offered through the university’s forensic anthropology program. It also indirectly commended the work of Turhon Murad and P. Willey, the department’s nationally recognized forensic anthropologists.

“Right now, Chico is the only university in the country—and I daresay around the world—that has two board-certified forensic anthropologists on the same staff,” said Murad, referring to his and Willey’s status as two of 50 diplomates on the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Forensic anthropology, the “applied portion of physical anthropology,” teaches students to use skeletal and biological principles and techniques to identify ancient or decomposed human remains.

As an anthropological subdiscipline, forensic science is “riding a wave” of popularity at the moment, noted Murad, who currently serves as the department’s graduate adviser. “We have about 32 applicants for our graduate program for next fall,” he said. “Twenty of them have applied specifically for the forensic anthropology program. Many hope to come here specifically because they want to work with P. and me.”

Chico State undergraduates can earn certificates in forensic anthropology along with their Bachelor of Science degrees, while graduate students can assist Murad and Willey on actual case referrals brought to the Human Identification Laboratory located in Butte Hall. Each year, the laboratory receives between 50 and 60 requests to perform field recovery and morgue consultations on death cases where expertise in skeletal biology is critical. Courses in primate evolution, field archaeology, laboratory methods, and criminal justice help focus postgraduate career choices.

This surge of interest, however, runs counter to the number of forensic positions out in the real world. “It’s very tough,” said Willey. “There are maybe three people nationwide who are doing forensic anthropology full time. So, the probability of someone coming out with an M.A. and doing stuff along those lines is low. In anthropology, at least, you need to stay as broad as possible.”

Diversity is also urged by career announcements on departmental bulletin boards. What about launching a business in genetic counseling? Or working for the Health, Education, and Welfare Department? “I’ve had students who’ve gone on with companies to become quality control people and salesmen or work in laboratories,” recalled Murad. “Some of them have gotten lab jobs at universities. We’ve had students who’ve gone on to Ph.D. programs at Berkeley, Davis, University of Washington, Utah—just all over. Some of them teach at junior colleges. Some of them get jobs with law enforcement.”

With Murad and Willey for models, not a few hope to become university professors who also consult for law enforcement groups, coroners, and other state and national agencies. Murad is sent cases from most of the counties in California as well as from Oregon and Washington. For the last two years, he’s served as the forensic anthropologist for the state of Nevada. He also teaches courses for the California Department of Justice. Willey continues to oversee repatriation cases for the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. On a scholarly level, for the last 20 years, he’s been working on a Paleolithic massacre case that occurred in North Dakota during the early 1300s. He’s also spent time analyzing remains from the Battle of Little Big Horn.

“When you see a human skull for the first time, it’s very different from when you see one for the umpteenth time,” observed Willey. “What can we tell from it? What’s this one going to say? And what can we then say about it? If it’s a forensic case, a family might want to know what happened to a loved one, or authorities will ask for assistance in bringing someone to trial. If it’s archaeological material like the Custer stuff, it’s a matter of trying to find out who is who, who died where. How accurate are the historic accounts? How have they amplified or corrected the evidence of the physical remains?”

Whether for scholarly or forensic reasons—and conference speakers emphasized that each case is unique—studying death as a telltale puzzle remains a peculiarly human endeavor. As forensic anthropologist and conference speaker, Hugh Berryman admitted prior to his lecture on video superimposition as a forensic tool, “I love a mystery.” No one in the audience doubted that he spoke for them all.

Taran March

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