The Tools of Forensic Anthropology

Hear one woman's story of the search for her brother who was disappeared.

Nostalgia for the Light hints at the intersection of forensic anthropology with contemporary Latin American social movements. These movements aim to find the bodies of persons that had gone missing under various military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. In the film, archaeologists are seen collaborating with local women to help recover personal and cultural history from Pinochet's dictatorship. These women lost loved ones under Pinochet's regime and now scour as "amateur archaeologists" in the Atacama Desert in hopes of finding answers in the form of human remains.

The use of forensic anthropology methods to aid in the investigation of human rights injustices began in the 1980s with Dr. Clyde Snow's excavations alongside a local crew (later named the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) after Argentina's Dirty War. Snow said that he took the job in Argentina because, "The idea of using forensic anthropology for human rights violations was something new. This was the beginning." Snow felt that the identification of missing persons helped families in their grieving processes and moving on with their lives. Furthermore, it put an international spotlight on governments that have allowed for the miscarriages of justices and revealed the details of massacres that oppressive governments have actively suppressed.

Forensic anthropologists use a variety of processes to determine the fates of their victims:

  • Gas chromatography separates chemical substances in the body, and when used in conjunction with mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of molecules in a substance, can help toxicologists identify the amount of poison in a body.
  • Popularized in crime television shows, forensic radiology uses x-rays, computer tomography and MRIs to identify severely destroyed bodies and point to potential causes of death.
  • Ground-penetrating radar and a proton magnetometer can help identify mass graves. Ground-penetrating radar sends radar waves into the ground to sense the edges of graves as well as the presence of bodies and other evidence. A proton magnetometer can be used to detect small changes in the Earth's magenetic field, which is particularly useful for finding grave pits as the act of digging a grave greatly disturbs the electromagnetic properties of the soil.
  • Flotation is a process that can be used to recover small artifacts from soil. The soil is placed on a screen that water can bubble through. The soil then gets separated from other matter like stones or bones.
  • GIS or (geographic information systems) is lastly used to store the coordinates and data of excavation sites.

In addition to using common tools and equipment such as shovels, trowels, knives and excavators to investigate sites, many teams will also use:

  • anthropometers to measure and establish human stature with found bones
  • boley guages to measure teeth
  • spreading calipers to measure head length and breadth
  • and heat-sensitive infrared cameras to locate new graves, as it can reveal images in the ground that are not immediately visible above ground.