April 21, 1999

Skeletons are out of the closet for Cornell's human biology class

 Kristen Hartnett takes measurements on the skull of her term-project skeleton
Frank DiMeo/University Photography
Cornell senior Kristen Hartnett takes measurements on the skull of her term-project skeleton, dubbed "Mr. Head." Students in the human biology class use forensic anthropology techniques to chronicle life histories of the dead.

There's mystery afoot in Cornell University's Human Biology Laboratory, where an X-Files clock hangs on the wall and every drawer is filled with human bones or the special instruments used to measure them. The clock was a thank-you gift to forensic anthropologist Kenneth A.R. Kennedy from former students who had the time of their lives examining the dead. Kennedy's current students in Biological Sciences/Anthropology 474 will know what killed the skeletal subjects of their term-projects -- or at least what traumas and illnesses were suffered -- by the time the spooky clock reaches the end of the semester.

The unusual class is Laboratory and Field Methods in Human Biology, and the stated intent is to teach the skills practiced by human biologists and biological anthropologists who examine skeletons to determine the evolution and physical diversity of Homo sapiens. But any class taught by Kennedy, professor of ecology and systematics and one of only 57 Diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists, has an aura of X-Files about it.

That's because he is a much-in-demand consultant for puzzled police agencies, and he invariably relates his adventures to his class. There was, for example, The Case of the Grinning Skull. Kennedy was asked by police to examine a mummified head found in the attic of an old house on Ithaca's Geneva Street. Well-ventilated attics in the Northeast United States are reasonably good places to make mummies, says Kennedy, what with freezing wintertime temperatures and hot, dry summers. The head had belonged to a young man.

"Neighbors told of seeing a grinning skull in a window," Kennedy recalls. "I did a little investigation and learned that long ago the house was occupied by a man who trafficked in prostitution, so perhaps the man had worked for him. But he could not have been the grinning skull for two reasons: Passersby could not have seen the mummified head from the street. And the head's lower jaw was missing."

That case remains unsolved, but a more recent murder involving a female student at another university was closed, thanks in part to Kennedy's forensic skills. Police suspected the coed's boyfriend. But he insisted she had fallen and struck her head on a stereo speaker. He buried her in the backyard then later dug up the body and reburied it elsewhere.

Kennedy tells the story to make the point that hasty reburials sometimes leave body parts behind, and that was true in the murder. After the body was exhumed a second time, Kennedy found crushed bones in the throat that indicated violent strangulation. The boyfriend went to jail.

Angela Lamb, a Cornell senior majoring in anthropology, says her term-project skeleton probably suffered nothing more traumatic than bone disease. "So far I've found evidence of arthritis, from the lipping on some of the bone surfaces, and I have a good estimate of height and age," she says. "He was a big man, over 6 feet tall." She has learned to estimate age from the degree of fusion of the sutures in the skull plates, although after age 50 the estimates are difficult because the sutures become completely fused. "This is not an easy course," Lamb says. "There's a lot of memorization, but I love it. I've always been interested in forensics -- in the detective-story aspect of the science."

Students in the class can choose their term-project skeletons from either hospital skeletons donated to science or from archaeological skeletons dating to about 800 A.D. Either kind can have "occupational markers," the permanent signs of stress from a job or avocation, like milker's neck and hooker's elbow. Such markers are among Kennedy's research specialties, as well as skeletal markers of disease or traumatic injury. Kennedy has written extensively on the subject, most recently in Atlas of Occupational Markers on Human Remains<>, of which he is a co-author.

Guest lectures by county medical examiners help students understand the real-world applications of the science they are learning. A typical lab session finds graduate teaching assistant Kay Grennan demonstrating how to use a goniometer, the specialized device for measuring dimensions and angles of a human jaw bone. Meanwhile, Kennedy is showing students how to use calipers to measure skulls.

Those measurement techniques will come in handy for Laurel Freas, a sophomore in Arts and Sciences who is heading for an archaeological dig at a Woodland Indian site in Pennsylvania this summer. She says she appreciates the objectivity that forensic methods bring to anthropology.

Getting accurate readings from the measuring instruments is important, of course, Kennedy tells the students. But so is the way students handle the tools of the trade and even their posture while doing so. That is especially true when taking measurements of specimens in a museum collection, for example, under the watchful eye of a curator.

"Hold the instruments properly, make yourself comfortable and don't hunch over," Kennedy says. "Fifty years from now, when I'm dead and gone, if you take measurements the wrong way I'll come back and haunt you."