As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Dawnie Steadman was restless. She wanted to understand how anthropology could help communities, but was not sure where to start. One of her professors suggested she travel to Argentina and assist the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team identify thousands of people who disappeared in the “Dirty War” the military junta waged on its own people in the 1970s and 80s.
“Their genuine compassion for the plight of the families who wanted only to know the truth of what happened to the missing child, wife, or husband compelled me to follow in their footsteps,” Steadman says. “The impactful combination of science and social justice remains a strong interest for me and guides the human rights work I do now.”
After that experience, Steadman, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and the director of the Forensic Anthropology Center, decided to focus her research on the impact of conflict on communities.
“I am most interested in how conflict in the past affected community and health decision making,” says Steadman, who conducts some of her research in the Middle Cumberland Region near Nashville. “We see late prehistoric populations experienced greater conflict and seemed to choose more defensible settlements farther from good agriculture land in more exposed river valleys.”
This coupled with larger population size and less food variety created a perfect environment for opportunistic diseases, such as tuberculosis, to thrive.
“We expect to see greater frequencies of not only warfare-related trauma, but also infectious and metabolic diseases in the settlements,” Steadman says.
She also works with colleagues in the Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights Program on a project in northern Uganda involving the use of forensic human rights investigations at sites of the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Survivors of the war think the spirits of the dead are angry, however, and are concerned that exhumations of the graves may exacerbate the anger and jeopardize the health and well-being of the living.
“The conflict raged for over a decade and left an untold number of mass graves across the landscape,” Steadman says. “The team is conducting ethnographic research to assess whether forensic exhumations will cause more psychosocial harm than good.”
When she is not surveying mass graves or studying the skeletal remains from archeological sites, Steadman is working on the vast portfolio of research projects available at the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC), which range from advancing DNA in human identification to using bacteria in and on the body as a postmortem clock to estimate the time since death.
“The best word to describe my experience as the director of the FAC is exhilarating,” Steadman says. “I am part of a team of amazing women. The creative energy we generate here is addicting, and I think we have not yet even approached the limits of our potential as a center. The resources of the FAC are unique and attract researchers in a variety of fields from all over the world, which adds to the collaborative environment that makes working here so enjoyable, exciting, and intellectually stimulating.”
Known to most people as “The Body Farm,” the FAC has been the global leader in forensic anthropology for three decades.
“The type of research we choose to do and the international impact of our work directly shapes the trajectory of the field,” Steadman says.
One study that has recently gained a lot of attention is whether methods used to estimate the postmortem interval, or time since death, developed on animal subjects could be reliably applied to human forensic cases. Researchers without access to human bodies use pigs or other animals for research and development of new postmortem interval methods.
“Our concern, however, was that no one understood the error that could be involved with applying postmortem interval methods developed from animal subjects to human forensic cases,” Steadman says.
Researchers at FAC studied 45 pig, rabbit, and human subjects over three seasonal trials to see if there were differences in the rate and patterns of decomposition between the species. They found that animals did not decompose at the same rate nor show the variability they observed in humans.
“We concluded that studies designed to estimate postmortem intervals in human forensic cases should utilize human subjects,” Steadman says. “This type of research helps judges and attorneys evaluate whether the method applied in a particular forensic case is reliable and relevant in court.”
With big legislative changes that regulate forensic science research, laboratory practices, and training on the horizon, Steadman is determined to have the FAC become the first accredited academic anthropology laboratory in the nation.
“We think it is imperative the FAC develop the standards and protocols and inform the process of anthropology lab accreditation before it is legally mandated and that we anticipate the research and development needs of forensic science,” Steadman says. “Our role in basic scientific research will become even more crucial to help develop and test new technologies for forensic science or leverage new technologies originally designed for other applications.”
Steadman and her team celebrated the 30th anniversary of the FAC in October. They also celebrated the 35th anniversary of the body donation program, which is an essential part of the research conducted at FAC, by dedicating a memorial garden to the donors and their families.
“None of the research and training we do would be possible without the generosity of people who donate their body to us for forensic science research,” Steadman says. “Our body donors are the essential to the research and training we provide.”
Learn more about the FAC
Originally published in Higher Ground, April 20, 2017.