Douglas Owsley is Curator of Physical Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Born in Wyoming, he received his B.S. degree in Zoology from the University of Wyoming in 1973, and his Ph.D. degree in Anthropology from the University of Tennessee in 1978. He taught in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee from 1979-1980 and in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University from 1980-1987. He joined the Smithsonian’s staff in 1987.
Dr. Owsley is one of the foremost forensic anthropologists in the world. His research specialties include skeletal biology, forensic anthropology, historic populations in North America, North American Plains Indians, and Polynesia. He assisted in the identification of the victims at the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, has worked in the Balkans identifying the victims of the Bosnian War, and was called to Waco, Texas by the FBI in order to help them identify those killed in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Dr. Owsley was one of the chief plaintiffs in Robson Bonnichsen et al. v. U.S. et al. Civil Case No. 96-1481, the successful litigation to allow for the scientific study of the Kennewick Man, the 9600-year-old human skeleton found eroding from the bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington in 1996.
Dr. Owsley’s work was chronicled in “No Bone Unturned: Inside the World of a Top Forensic Scientist and His Work on America’s Most Notorious Crimes and Disasters” by Jeff Benedict (HarperCollins, 2003). In November 2005, the editors of Smithsonian Magazine included Owsley in their list of “35 Who Made a Difference” along with the likes of Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Yo-Yo Ma, and Steven Spielberg.
Douglas Owsley was the 2006 Awards Dinner guest speaker at the SCA Annual Meeting in Ventura. His presentation addressed the recent taphonomic analysis of the Kennewick Man.
The following interview was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman, Greg White, and Stella D’Oro.
SCA: Can you tell us where you were born, and a little about your early childhood?
DO: I was born in Sheridan, Wyoming, but I grew up in Lusk, a town near the border with Nebraska. At the time, Lusk had a population of about 1500. I remember Lusk as being a place where as a kid you could leave in the morning and play all over the place, returning home at lunch and dinner. It offered a good school system. I had a curiosity about nature. I remember an archaeological dig about 15 miles from town, which my dad, who was a Game Warden, took me to see. It was the first time that I saw an archaeological excavation.
SCA: Who are the people that most influenced you?
DO: Professors George Gill, William Bass, and Richard Jantz. When I was growing up, I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. There was a local dad who grabbed me and a bunch of boys and moved us through the scouting ranks. That gave me a lot of camping experience and exposure to outdoor life. In high school, I had a lot of teachers who had a positive influence on me, especially my two science teachers.
SCA: Do you have any hobbies or special interests that you’d like to tell us about?
DO: I’m married and my wife, Susan, and I have two grown daughters ages 28 and 30. My wife is also from Wyoming. I met her when she was seven years old, and we began dating in high school. Susan became a nurse. We were married in 1973, after I graduated from college. For years, we lived in an urban environment. Recently, however, we purchased a small 30-acre farm about 75 miles from Washington in the piedmont area of Virginia. We have a couple of horses, two dogs – a redbone hound and a beagle – and three cats. We plant corn and orchard grass, and we also do a lot of gardening. We have a lot of different kinds of berries including blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries, red and black currants, and several varieties of grapes. We have a small orchard with peaches, nectarines, pears, cherries, and several kinds of apples. In Lusk, we used to have a raspberry bush and our neighbors had a currant bush. As a boy, I remember picking the berries from those bushes. I envision someday picking berries on our farm with some future grandchild of mine.
SCA: What is a typical day at home like for you?
DO: I go downtown and stay for three days straight, working long days in my office at the Smithsonian. Then I come home to write and edit papers. My work in the office is often consumed with meetings and phone calls, which is why I like to write at home.
SCA: Have you read a book or seen a movie recently that you really enjoyed and can tell us about?
DO: Most of my reading time is centered around my work. This morning, I have been reading an issue of National Geographic that has an interesting article on DNA. I read scientific and history magazines, but I rarely have time to read books for pleasure.
SCA: If you hadn’t become a forensic anthropologist, what career might you have chosen?
DO: I probably would have become a physician or a dentist. The world was a lot less complicated when I grew up, and role models for career choices seemed limited when compared with today’s opportunities. I am fortunate to have found my field; it’s exciting, it gets me outdoors, it offers adventures and travels, and it allows me to follow my interests and curiosity. It is a lot of work, but I love doing most of it.
SCA: When did you first know that you wanted to work with human remains?
DO: It was through Dr. George Gill at the University of Wyoming. I was intrigued by the study of human remains. My fascination grew while I trained at the University of Tennessee. I became more focused on this area when I became an Assistant Professor at LSU. It was practical that I became a North Americanist due to my lack of resources. For example, I couldn’t afford to work in Peru, so I began working with Plains collections. Then, at LSU, my direction became solidified when I saw the need for forensic anthropology. At that time, I was the only forensic anthropologist at LSU. It was practical to be focused on human remains that were found through police work and at construction sites. My interest in the skeleton as a resource for information began with Dr. Gill at Wyoming. It continued through my time at Tennessee, but at LSU I realized that it was practical. There was an obvious need for someone to work on police cases, and I was also involved in studies of historic and prehistoric skeletons found at construction sites.
SCA: Can you tell us a little about your training, where you went to school, and what you remember about that time in your life?
DO:I attended the University of Wyoming as a Pre-Med student, but soon discovered archaeology classes thanks to Dr. Gill. It is amazing how one teacher can change your direction forever. I was a Zoology major and received my B.S. in Zoology in 1973. George took an interest in me and invited me to go into the field with him. Sometimes, our fieldwork involved modern investigations and sometimes prehistoric. George was a charismatic instructor. Occasionally his fieldwork involved a police investigation, but some discoveries were made at prehistoric sites. One summer he took me to Mexico to visit some archaeological sites that were being excavated. Dr. Gill took me to Kansas for the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. It was there that he introduced me to Dr. Bill Bass. Dr. Bass suggested that I apply to his new program at the University of Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee was the best place for me. While there, I worked with Dr. Richard Jantz. I received my Ph.D. in 1978. One of the things that I really liked about the program at the University of Tennessee was the open door policy of its professors. The doors were open to students. The professors were willing to explore other options for their students. For example, I went to Nashville, Tennessee to study gross anatomy at a medical school. Together Dr. Bass and I decided that I should go elsewhere for more classes so I spent a semester at Arizona State University as an intern. It was there that I studied under Dr. Charles Merbs, who introduced me to paleopathology. During the following summer in Arizona, I worked with Dr. Walt Birkby, a practicing forensic anthropologist who had been Dr. Bass’ first student.
My M.A. thesis topic at Dr. Bass’ suggestion was a demographic analysis of a human skeleton collection from South Dakota. The collection was from the Larson site and had been collected as part of the earlier River Basin Surveys. Later, when I chose my Ph.D. topic, I was taking more classes in statistics than Anthropology. The topic I chose for my dissertation concerned a study of children with cleft lip and cleft palate. I worked through the University of Tennessee hospital with families that had children with facial deformities. I looked at dermal ridges and their relationship to growth disturbances to evaluate a developmental process called “canalization.”
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, I did post-doctoral research on Plains skeletal biology data. I then began teaching at the University of Tennessee. I was there for one year and then went to teach at Louisiana State University.
I was at LSU from 1980-1987. While at LSU, I learned a lot about creating a forensics program. LSU was very supportive but didn’t have a lot of resources. I did lots of work in New Orleans with the historic cemeteries like St. Peter, Cypress Grove, and Girod Street Cemeteries. This work was driven by development such as the construction of roads. I learned that forensics work was valuable to the public and very visible and thus capable of helping to attract other resources for the program. I learned that forensic service was valued by the university administration and the public. The forensics program became known to the local authorities and soon I began acquiring cases. The program helped provide assistance to families. Solving the cases helped bring family closure, and it helped prevent future crime by catching the perpetrators. Then as now, I often served as a special witness for the prosecution.
I am research oriented. To do a good job as an anthropologist, we have to look at lots of collections – prehistoric, historic, and modern – in order to solve cases. We can apply what we have learned from modern cases to the remains of early historic and prehistoric remains.
In my SCA talk, I focused on taphonomic reconstruction. We considered different taphonomic indicators to reconstruct what happened to the Kennewick Man once his remains were in the ground. We looked at macroabrasions to sort out body orientation, alignment to the riverbed, and to determine whether this was an intentional burial. Assessment of multiple variables helped confirm that this discovery represented an intentional burial rather than a flood victim whose remains had been covered up by silt.
SCA: What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
DO: In 2007, we had the 400-year anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. For years, I’ve been working with archaeologists on early colonial sites. I’ve worked with Bill Kelso at Jamestown and with Henry Miller at Maryland’s St. Mary’s City. I’ve worked with five lead coffin burials from the 17th century. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History exhibit showcases the work that we’ve done with a number of 17th century sites. The exhibit, entitled “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake”, opened in February 2009. The exhibit addresses what daily life was like in the Colonial Chesapeake region, and it examines burial practices and the causes of death. Several hundred burials dating to the 17th century have been excavated, most of them at Jamestown and St. Mary’s City. Most of the burials are of Europeans but some of those from Jamestown are of Africans. We’re also looking at colonial burials from the hinterland, such as those associated with rural farms. This is a fascinating exhibit. It cost approximately $2.7 million dollars to design and build. The History Channel was one of our major funders for the exhibit. I was directly involved in helping to raise funds for the exhibit. It is important that we give these people from the past an opportunity to tell their stories. The exhibit has a website, a children’s book written by acclaimed author Sally Walker, an award-winning educational webcomic entitled “The Secret in the Cellar”, a hands on forensics lab for school groups and visitors, and a companion book titled Written in Bone: A Bone Biographer’s Casebook.
SCA: What are some of your most memorable experiences as a forensic anthropologist?
DO: They are those occasions where I find myself working directly with the families. At LSU, I remember talking to the mother and father in a case where I identified the remains as those of their lost daughter. Although it was a terribly sad case, at least the parents were given some closure by knowing what had happened to their daughter.
The “Trunk Lady” case is another example. A woman was killed and her body put into a trunk which was then disposed of in the woods. Some hikers found the trunk and opened it, and thus discovered the woman’s remains. Larry Angel looked at the woman’s skull and said that she was about 18-20 years of age. Later, Larry looked at more of the remains and realized that the woman was closer to 26 years of age. Unfortunately, that information did not get out to the law enforcement agencies. Years later, I received a call from the Cold Case Unit who wanted to reopen the investigation in the hopes of identifying the victim. By then, the coroner had cremated the remains. I worked with Larry Angel’s files and did a facial reconstruction. The local authorities shared the reconstruction with the local news media. This led to a parallel investigation that solved a different missing persons case.
A woman came forward and said that the drawing could possibly resemble her missing older sister. After getting confirmation from me that “Trunk Lady” was not her sister, she hired a private investigative unit to follow up on some of the leads that had been dismissed by the police many years ago. She put pressure on people who were thought to know what had happened to the missing woman. A witness confessed to knowing what had happened and where the woman’s body could be located. She said that the woman had been beaten to death by a biker, and her body dumped in an abandoned well. The authorities were able to locate the woman’s remains and apprehend the person responsible for her murder. While the “Trunk Lady” remains unidentified, my facial reconstruction of her led to the inadvertent discovery of another missing person and the prosecution of her killer.
Although I didn’t identify the “Trunk Lady,” I did manage to bring to justice to another missing persons case. Afterwards, I met with that woman’s family and made a request of them. I asked to keep the woman’s remains at the Smithsonian, and to use them for teaching other forensic anthropologists how to read the evidence of trauma. I promised that her remains would be well cared for while at the Smithsonian, and that they would help others. The family agreed.
SCA:What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a scientist?
DO: It is important to develop your skills at raising the funds to cover the cost of your work. You need to learn how to get grants and fundraise. The types of data that I collect are detailed, and it takes a team of researchers to collect, analyze, and organize this data. We track 1600 variables per skeleton on a computer. It is challenging to find the funding to keep them collecting the necessary data for taphonomic reconstructions.
Another challenge I worry about involves the next generation of scientists. With repatriation and the avoidance of working with Native American osteological collections, we are losing irreplaceable data. Future generations will wish that these collections were available to them as they develop new technology and formulate new questions. I’m trying to broadcast the value of the collections so they will remain available for scientific study. In the broader context of repatriation, I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of human remains, regardless of whether they are from a modern or an old case. I just want to ensure that the stories of the deceased are told.
SCA: Why is the Kennewick Man important to the average citizen?
DO: We’re telling this man’s story. He was found on Federal land. His bones were washed out of the riverbank, discovered by a passerby, and turned over to the County Coroner for examination. The U.S. Army Corps obtained a 14C date and realized that the remains were old. They then pulled the remains from the jurisdiction of the Coroner. This was a great concern from a forensic perspective. The Coroner’s examination should have been allowed to continue. Human remains found on Federal land need to be properly examined.
What is the nature of Science? It is to collect information as scientists, to be objective and to have no biases toward the data. It is to let the data tell you what the facts are. It is to gather data to be made available for the public. The Clovis-First model is falling by the wayside. We’re now looking at earlier settlement and from different routes of entry. Human remains dating earlier than 8,000 years have features more like East Asians and Polynesians than the people of Northeast Asia. People came from Asia at different times along different routes including travel by boat. Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist who is my colleague at the Smithsonian, has even suggested a connection to the Solutrean culture of Europe. It’s all up in the air right now.
The issue of first settlement is extremely complicated and complex. We need to be able to investigate and ask questions about the past. It’s not only about the scientists’ need to study skeletons but rather the next generation that suffers and loses out when the government says you can’t study human remains such as the Kennewick Man. At the last study session of the Kennewick Man investigation, we had 20 scientists working on the analysis including several graduate students. There is so much information that comes from the analysis of human remains that cannot be obtained any other way. I have worked in concert with Native American tribes, including the Blackfeet, Crow, and Wichita, to record the information found in their human remains. The older remains, such as the Kennewick Man, are the problem. In such cases, we need to take a strong stance to save information from loss. Each case can add to our understanding of what happened in the Americas. I am currently editing the Kennewick Man papers with Dr. Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee.
SCA: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your work with the bones of the past?
DO: The sky is the limit as to what information we can get from the human skeleton. The questions I ask today are so different from those I used to ask. We can now identify Jamestown colonists by whether they were born in the Old World or New World. In the case of the 1864 wreck of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine, we analyzed the eight sets of human remains. We identified four of the sailors as having been born here in America. The other four were born in Europe. My goals are to help expand the field as per research potential and to watch out for the next generation. We don’t yet know what questions the next generation will ask of the archaeological record.
SCA: What would you recommend to those who are just beginning their careers as archaeologists or forensic anthropologists?
DO: Give some thought to your school. A good undergraduate education can come from anywhere – junior college, a state university, or university. Develop your skills in English as writing is very important. If you’re a student of forensic anthropology, bring in all the science and statistics that you can. Realize that it is not an easy profession but that it is terribly exciting. You will be captivated by it. It really grabs you! Regardless of your career, you’ll have to work hard at it. There’s room for you if you do work hard. For anthropologists, get lots of experience working with prehistoric skeletons and modern human remains. It’s that experience that gives you the necessary experience and depth to interpret what you’re seeing. You will have a lot of responsibility when serving as an expert witness. You must be accurate and reliable. This is best done under the guidance of a mentor in a research setting with skeletal collections. Unfortunately, this is becoming harder to do. This is due in part to the irreplaceable loss of extensive skeletal collections. Not many universities specialize in physical anthropology, therefore not many schools have good skeletal collections. The trend in the field is towards more forensics-types of programs, but students need to have experience with using, examining, and analyzing bones.
SCA: How will the study of forensic anthropology inform the archaeology of the future?
DO: Forensic anthropology and archaeology are interrelated. The two disciplines complement one another. For example, in the field I work with an assistant, three archaeologists, and a photographer. Archaeology provides context and is a key component of my work.
SCA: How might we make archaeology more relevant to the public?
DO: In the Kennewick case, the plaintiff scientists decided upfront to share information with the public. I learned the importance of that when working with Bill Bass, who was always open and upfront with the public. I work a great deal with the news media because of my position. The March 13th, 2006 issue of Time magazine has an article on Kennewick Man. We need to explain what we do and why we do it. I try to create circumstances where we can do interpretation. At the 17th century Harleigh Knoll site in eastern Maryland, we worked with high school students in excavating the colonial period cemetery. We developed a 4-minute video that showed students talking to their peers about archaeology and its value to the public. They spoke of discovery and the excitement of finding out about things in their backyards. We need to look for more opportunities to do interpretation. We must communicate effectively with the public.
SCA: What will the practice of archaeology look like tomorrow?
DO: Many collections that have been reburied contain information that would have been extremely helpful to tomorrow’s physical anthropologists. Technology is advancing in ways that allow us to do things we would have never thought of before. If a collection is reburied, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to use new technological tools to re-analyze these remains.
In my SCA presentation, I talked about the projectile point in Kennewick Man’s hip. We did an industrial CT scan study of the point using new technology. At the same time as the technology advances, we see reluctance by some to allow for the study of human remains. We need to be able to explain what we do and why we do it. We need organizations such as the SAA and SCA to support us. We need to try to accommodate tribal communities but we also need to stand up for the importance of what we are doing. Groups that represent us are often too conciliatory when representing the interests of history. There are good reasons for these studies, and these reasons needs to be acknowledged.
SCA: Will the past continue to be relevant in the future?
DO: Yes it will. Knowing where you came from helps you to chart a course into the future. The past is prologue to the future.