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martes, 21 de mayo 2024
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UdeA’s osteological collection helps identify migrants’ skeletal remains

By Andrea Carolina Vargas Malagón

Within the Laboratory of Anthropological and Forensic Osteology at the Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA), 200 skulls of the 550 skeletonized individuals in the osteological collection are under study. This research is part of a U.S.-based project to determine the cranial variations among Latin American populations. The purpose is to obtain data to identify the origins of migrants’ remains discovered along the Mexico-United States border. 

A person looking at a skull

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The Laboratory of Anthropological and Forensic Osteology at the Universidad de Antioquia is Colombia’s sole institution equipped with an osteological collection for teaching and research. Photo: UdeA Communications Office / Andrea Carolina Vargas Malagón

Every year, millions of people decide to irregularly cross the border between Mexico and the United States in pursuit of a better future. However, many of them tragically fail to complete the journey and lose their lives in the attempt, leaving their remains as proof of existence along the way. According to the Missing Migrants Project by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2014, over 5,286 migrants have been registered, encompassing both deaths and disappearances in this crossing. 

“At the border, we have a crisis in identifying migrant remains. Without their documents, their DNA, and a DNA sample from their relatives, it is like searching for something impossible. Migrants come from diverse locations, making it difficult to identify their geographic origin even though most come from Mexico or the Central American triangle - El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. We must explore alternative identification methods,” explained Élisabeth Cuerrier-Richer, a forensic anthropologist and Ph.D. candidate in applied anthropology at Texas State University. She aims to establish a new database that contains information on cranial variations in Hispanic populations to compare it with the 400 skeletal remains comprising Operation Identification. -see box-

Operation Identification is a humanitarian project initiated at the Texas State University Center for Forensic Anthropology. Its mission is to locate and exhume human remains discovered along the South Texas border, to facilitate their identification and eventual repatriation. 

Cuerrier-Richer included the collection of the Laboratory of Anthropological and Forensic Osteology at the Universidad de Antioquia in her study for several reasons, one being its status as a global reference for researchers in anthropology, forensic sciences. and archaeology. This distinction arises from the fact that it is among the few collections of its kind in Latin America meticulously preserved, catalogued, and documented according to strict scientific standards.  

“In the laboratory, we ensure that skeletal remains receive the appropriate treatment, following strict protocols to maintain them in optimal conditions for scientific research and the respect that the remains deserve. Our collection garners interest from foreign researchers, especially from the United States, due to the rigorous documentation we maintain. Many individuals in our collection even have their clinical history,” commented Timisay Monsalve Vargas, forensic anthropologist and director of the Laboratory of Anthropological and Forensic Osteology at UdeA.

The osteological collection of the Universidad de Antioquia encompasses individuals representing all stages of the human life cycle, from fetuses to individuals approximately 106 years of age.

Another crucial factor that caught Cuerrier-Richer’s attention regarding the university’s osteological collection, where she worked between January and February 2024, pertained to the time of death of the individuals. For example, the 200 skulls she studied for three weeks corresponded to adult individuals who had died approximately 15 years ago. 

“I chose osteological collections or laboratories with a “modern collection,” focusing on individuals from more recent times rather than archaeological specimens. The rationale behind this decision is that the passage of time can alter the shape of skulls. Therefore, if I want to compare data with individuals who have died recently, I need information from “modern” people, not those from the 18th or 19th century,” said Cuerrier-Richer. She added that this parameter was also applied to select the other collections to analyze in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile.

Geographic information traced in the skulls 

A person holding a tool to a skull

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The 550 skeletonized individuals comprising UdeA’s osteological collection result from a loan agreement between the Universidad de Antioquia and the San Pedro Museum Cemetery. Photo: UdeA Communications Office / Andrea Carolina Vargas Malagón

Biological anthropology and anatomy research have identified several skull characteristics based on evolution, race, and genetic formation. Moreover, studies have shown that the population of each Latin American country possess distinct genetic profiles resulting from centuries of intermixing among Africans, Europeans, and indigenous peoples. Élisabeth Cuerrier-Richer considers that this biological blending gives rise to specific skull characteristics shared among individuals from identical geographical origins. 

Evaluation of craniometric points or precise reference points on the skull's surface used to assess the shape and size yields information on cranial variation between skeletal remains from different countries. In this research, Cuerrier-Richer collects this data using a digitizer and software capable of identifying 86 cranial points with definitions standardized by forensic anthropology. Additionally, the software generates 3D coordinates, which can compare data between individuals through a multivariate analysis program to identify their origins.

“Even without analyzing the data, I was delighted to observe how the Universidad de Antioquia's osteological collection varied. This collection reflects a higher level of admixture than those I have worked with in the United States. For example, just by examining a skull here, I could observe characteristics typically associated with Africans or indigenous populations,” commented Cuerrier-Richer. 

One of the first investigations conducted in Colombia to determine the geographic origins of the Colombian population, based on ancestry analysis of osteological remains, was undertaken in 2017 by forensic anthropologist Timisay Monsalve Vargas, in collaboration with U.S. researcher Joseph Hefner. “We compared the data from the osteological collection at UdeA with those of individuals classified as "Hispanic," and the results revealed that "we do not match craniofacial with any of those groups.” This shows the complex process of miscegenation and population particularly Colombia, particularly in Antioquia,” said Monsalve.

Research conducted by Élisabeth Cuerrier-Richer and anthropologist Timisay Monsalve Vargas underscores the significance of meticulously documented osteological collections. Their work highlights that the human skeletal remains study transcends academia and plays a crucial role in addressing real-world problems and challenges. Identifying an individual’s origin only with its cranial characteristics opens venues for returning the remains of deceased migrants to their places of origin. This process offers closure to those who still live with the uncertainty surrounding the fate of their loved, ones ventured out in pursuit of a better life.

“I hope that collections like this one and the research conducted here, specifically referring to the Laboratory of Anthropological and Forensic Osteology at the Universidad de Antioquia, can help improve the identification rates of these real cases. It is crucial to return human remains to their families, enabling them to understand the fate of their loved ones, find closure, and pursue justice if necessary. This knowledge allows them to move forward, armed with the truth,” expressed Cuerrier-Richer.



Deaths and disappearances





















Recording the toll of lives lost in the Americas, encompassing South America, Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. Over 90% of these incidences occur at the U.S.-Mexico border. Each number represents a person and the family and community they leave behind. Source: Missing Migrants Project.

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