Katherine Weisensee

Anthropology professor Dr. Katherine Weisensee working in lab with skeletal remains.
Image Credit: Clemson University photo

CLEMSON — Research from forensic anthropologists suggests that the structure of the human skull can help identify a person who has died attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico. After examining what little is often left of these individuals, researchers say medical examiners can use a skull’s symmetry to define the person’s likely origin and increase the odds that they will be identified.

According to Katherine Weisensee, chair of Clemson University’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department and co-author of the study, these research findings add to the available tools in body identification. When properly employed, they could bring families of border crossers one step closer to learning what might have happened to a loved one.

“People who attempt to cross the border tend to do so in dangerous areas, so when they’re unsuccessful their families only get to guess what happened,” Weisensee said. “The ability to trace a person’s remains to a particular place could be helpful in providing closure for a family.”

Weisensee and Kate Spradley, professor in Texas State University’s anthropology department, came to their conclusions regarding facial symmetry in border crossers by using three-dimensional technology to overlay sections of each skull to examine how the halves differ. They compared the remains of 350 border crossers in Pima County, Arizona with those of permanent Mexican residents and U.S. residents.

Weisensee says a person’s face is a good marker for health. Less symmetry in the face reflects increased physiological stress in the early stages of life and through adolescence, and the researchers’ comparison showed a clear difference in physiological stress between the groups. They found that the level of physiological stress among border crossers was significantly higher compared to U.S. residents, and somewhat higher compared to Mexican residents.

Economists and historians have historically used stature to indicate the economic health of a country. Weisensee says that as economies grow, people get taller and vice versa, so cranial symmetry in this case could be used as another indicator of a country or region’s economic health.

“We can infer that border crossers have high levels of physiological stress during development due in part to low socioeconomic status,” Weisensee said. “People who would migrate under such dangerous conditions might risk their lives because of their low socioeconomic status in their home country.”

Weisensee said that people are pushed to border crossings in increasingly dangerous environments, which has resulted in at least 7,000 deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past 16 years. With more reference samples from more areas, medical examiners could combine common indicators of border crossers, such as height and poor dental health, with facial symmetry to more accurately determine individuals’ identities.

Weisensee admits data collection is in early stages and is difficult for a wider variety of populations because of obstacles in obtaining the remains of modern people. She said an alternate method for increasing the likelihood of bringing some closure to families of the deceased could come through obtaining DNA samples that could then be compared to those found in recovered remains.

Spradley organizes a “Missing in Texas” day, in which families with missing migrant relatives provide DNA samples that can be compared to those found in the desert along with other families with missing relatives. Weisensee is planning a similar event in South Carolina to help facilitate identification of the missing.

“Expanding databases will be key to figuring out the differences between a Northern Mexican population versus one from Colombia or other areas of Central America, for example,” Weisensee said. “The more reference samples we can find, the more accurately we can pinpoint where a person originated and what kind of living conditions they experienced.”

Considering the number of skeletal remains recovered by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, Weisensee said the profile for border crossers in this area is already well defined.