Prior to the 1980′s, individual attributes like gender, age and ethnicity were assumed to be biological traits that manifested themselves in different cultural ways. In archaeology this meant that if we found a grave filled with weapons, but the skeleton too degraded to do an analysis of sex, we could assume it was male.
Even though trade in ivory has been banned, the poaching of tuskers continues unabated, threatening African elephants.However, Alfred Roca, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, has found a way to determine where the ivory comes from. He and his team have sampled elephants at 22 locations in 13 African countries to get sequences of their mitochondrial DNA mtDNA.mtDNA is the DNA located in mitochondria, structures within cells that convert the chemical energy from food into a form the cells can use. Most DNA is “nuclear”, found in the cell nucleus.What makes mtDNA a good marker for tracing the origin of ivory is first, that it is transmitted only by females and second, the fact that female elephants do not migrate between herds, the journal Evolutionary Applications reports.Roca and collaborators wanted to match these fragments to elephants from a specific location.
In 1985, the body of Josef Mengele, one of the last Nazi war criminals still at large, was unearthed in Brazil. The ensuing process of identifying the bones in question opened up what can now be seen as a third narrative in war crime investigations—not that of the document or the witness but rather the birth of a forensic approach to understanding war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the period coinciding with the discovery of Mengele’s skeleton, scientists began to appear in human rights cases as expert witnesses, called to interpret and speak on behalf of things—often bones and human remains. But the aesthetic, political, and ethical complications that emerge with the introduction of the thing in war crimes trials indicate that this innovation is not simply one in which the solid object provides a stable and fixed alternative to human uncertainties, ambiguities, and anxieties.
Merrie Long gets nosy inside the Osteology Lab, Forensic Anthropology Center, University of Tennessee