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Anthropologist’s work helps recreate faces in forensic murder cases

Her database of skin tissue could ultimately help solve cases of missing aboriginal women.

By BECKY RYNOR | JUN 22 2015

Tanya Peckmann’s master’s thesis started with 12 boxes of bones. The remains had been unearthed in the 1980s on the site of a former Hudson’s Bay trading post in Fort Francis.

“The bones were all co-mingled,” she recalls. “There had been no analysis. They had basically been dug up and put in boxes. I had to determine which bones belonged to which person. Determine the sex.”

She also had to sort out which bones were from Indigenous peoples and which were European. She then gave the Indigenous remains to the Rainy River First Nation in Northern Ontario, which held a ceremony to mark the passing of their ancestors. There was also a commemorative burial for the European bones.

Those boxes started Dr. Peckmann on the path of a career of research, teaching and creating courses in forensic anthropology. But she says they also underscored the importance of “giving closure to the living and dignity to the dead.”

Dr. Peckmann’s first degree is in biology. She originally wanted to go to medical school “so I have an anatomy background. It always interested me.” Her introduction into forensics happened when she to travelled to South Africa in 1998 to complete her PhD at the University of Cape Town Medical School.

“I ended up in the murder capital of the world and worked on lots of forensics cases while I was there,” she recalls. “That was my introduction to analyzing bones for forensics rather than as a historical or biological case study or examination. It was looking at demographics and why people were dying and trying to create stories around the bones about what was going on in these communities. Community stories are what I was trying to create, rather than just trying to identify who this exact person was.”

Now a professor of forensic anthropology at Saint Mary’s University, she has used her master’s and PhD research to create the first database of aboriginal tissue depth in Canada—a resource which she says could ultimately be used to help solve the mystery of hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

Dr. Peckmann used an ultrasound to measure tissue thickness at 19 points on the faces of aboriginal volunteers.  It revealed that Mi’kmaq people, for example, have more tissue depth in their cheeks, noses and chins. That information creates a very different “face” for investigators than one based on European data. If the face is based on European data, it is much more difficult to identify these women and solve their cases.

Dr. Peckmann has worked closely with RCMP Sargent Michel Fournier to create three-dimensional profiles – clay heads – based on the data she provides. The differences in European and First Nations facial data became obvious in the case of Donna Joe, a Mi’kmaq woman whose remains were found near the St. John River in New Brunswick in 1992 — a case that predates the database.

“I use the tissue depth research as examples in my teaching all the time,” says Dr. Peckmann. One of her lectures is about facial reconstruction and forensic art and draws extensively on this project and the data. She is frequently called upon when human remains are discovered in Nova Scotia, and she often includes her students in the investigation.

They “are drilled that there is to be no disrespect shown to these bones, that the scene is shown no disrespect. This is somebody’s loved one.” For Dr. Peckmann, closure is an important component of her work. “They’re not just a bunch of bones laying in the woods somewhere,” she says. “This is actually a human being.

“This is what I tell my students all the time. These human remains are somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father. They were a family member, they probably had jobs just like you and I, they had friends. It was a human being…that’s part of putting a face on the person, giving that association to these remains of actually being a person.”

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