A letter by Clyde Snow 7/29/2011

Dear Dennis,

The name problem goes back to 1972(73?) AAFS in Phoenix, the first I attended.  I was not a member.  On the first day, I sought out my friend, Ellis Kerley, who, at that time, the only forensic anthropologist in the Academy (although, I believe that Dr. Krogman had been awarded an honorary fellowship).  Ellis and I discussed the possibility of forming a section for forensic anthropologists and he brought the subject up at the business meeting.  He was told that the Academy required a commitment of 15 prospective members to form a new section and that, if such a group could be recruited, his proposal would be considered the following year.

Instead, we retired to my room, where, over the next 2-3 hours we called a number of colleagues throughout the country.  As I recall, all were willing to commit to the proposition and, by the end of the afternoon, Ellis was able to return to the board with the required number of prospective members (among them, as I recall, T.D. Stewart, Alice Brues, Bill Bass, Larry Angel, and R.G. Snyder.

We also considered the name of the section.  We decided on Physical Anthropology for two reasons:  (1) At that time, there were a couple of archaeologists in the country who regularly appeared as experts in the identification of skeletal remains and we did not think they were qualified and  (2) we feared that the AAFS Membership Board would not be favorable to the idea of opening the Academy up to “social” scientists as the broader name “Anthropology Section” would imply.

While that decision, I think, was the correct one at the time, I now think that it should be reconsidered.  I base this opinion on my experience over the past 26 years in helping in the investigation of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity in many countries throughout the world.  An outstanding example is the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team (FAFG), which I helped establish in 1990 and which is now the largest forensic anthropology operation in the world (with a full-time professional and administrative staff of around 120).  Its operations are focused primarily on the archaeological recovery, medico-legal examination, identification, and, ultimately, repatriation of the remains of the over 100,000 victims massacred in the Guatemalan government during it genocidal campaign against indigenes in the early 1980’s.  Obviously, archaeologists are essential in the excavation of mass graves.  But, also, we have found cultural anthropologists and linguists to be extremely important in communicating with the more than 40 linguistically distinct indigenous groups of Guatemala.  For example, cultural anthropologists make the initial contact with the families of victims to explain the objectives and procedures of a proposed investigation.  They also compile witness reports and collect antemortem data, genealogical information, and DNA samples necessary for identification.

The same “four-field” approach has proven invaluable in other countries where we have worked.

In fact, the above observations have been recognized by the Latin American Association of Forensic Anthropologists (ALAF) which I helped found in 2005 and which now has over 200 members in Central and South America.  Its membership is open to any educationally-qualified anthropologist conducting research or active investigation in forensic anthropology.

Therefore, I think it is entirely appropriate to reconsider broadening the Forensic Anthropology Section to include the other anthropological sub-disciplines with the proviso that practitioners of each be strictly limited to their own sub-field in matters relating to their recognition as expert witnesses.  For example, forensic archaeologists could testify only on matters archaeological and so forth.  In effect, our section would be composed of four sub-sections, each with a requirement of a Ph.D. in Anthropology but its own qualifications regarding case experience, report protocols, etc.

There are, of course, already a substantial number of well-qualified archaeologists who are frequently called to help in forensic exhumations/excavations in this country, I doubt we will be overwhelmed by applications from cultural anthropologists and linguists in the immediate future but in our increasingly multicultural society we should be prepared to welcome them.

All the best,

Clyde Snow


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