Local forensic anthropologist provides insight to field

EvyJo Compton

Staff Writer

Parkland’s anthropology department held a series of talks open to students, faculty, and the public, the last segment of which was given by Cris Hughes when she discussed her role as a forensic anthropologist. 

Hughes works at the University of Illinois and volunteers at the Champaign Coroner’s Office.

“I am now volunteering at the Champaign County Coroner’s Office as the lead forensic anthropologist,” Hughes stated in her talk. “I have been called in for numerous cases, and have also been called to help with cases in other counties.”

Forensic anthropologists are called to help on cases where there is significant tissue damage and the bones are where evidence can be found. They can also be called in to help identify bodies.

“In those cases that the body tissues are damaged, pathologists will call [forensic anthropologists] in to look at the bones,” Hughes said. “Forensic anthropologists can be called in to identify someone’s remains. We do not use soft tissue; we only look at bones.”

Forensic anthropologists have to follow a series of steps to be able to get to the bones, and then examine the skeletal materials.

“If in state of decomposition, we will have to get to the skeletal materials,” Hughes said. “We have to remove the soft tissue; sometimes this takes a few hours, sometimes four to five days. We bathe the bones in a water bath, and then we have to strain the water…for evidence.”

The majority of cases worked on by forensic anthropologists are from those on what Hughes describes as outliers in society.

“Those who become decomposed or skeletonized are those on the fringe of society,” Hughes said. “This includes the homeless, drug abusers…domestic abuse victims or individuals being a part of criminal activities—like sex trafficking. While I was in California, a large part of our cases was undocumented migrants or farm workers.”

When forensic anthropologists are called in to help identify the body of a deceased person, they are handling evidence when they investigate the bones. They also help narrow down the number of missing persons that match the description of the body.

“We can exhume skeletal materials to provide information for investigative leads,” Hughes stated. “We can help the investigation team by determining sex and age of the skeleton. We can narrow it down, but we aren’t always certain.

“There are a number of factors that affect the bones that can be misleading. We can also help narrow down the matches by explaining trauma done to the bones, pathological diseases, as well as if the deceased [had] cancer. We can help produce biological data.”

Along with determining who the body could belong to, forensic anthropologists determine if the bones are human at all.

“We are sometimes called in to investigate if skeletons are human or not,” Hughes said. “We are all shapes and sizes, and we all do not look the same. For example, a non-human skeleton that looks similar is a bear. Their hands look similar to a human’s. We can’t assume every skeleton is human, or that every skeleton is just one human.”

Once a forensic anthropologist is called to a case, they begin by investigating the evidence. Rarely do cases go to court, but if they do forensic anthropologists are prepared by taking notes and pictures.

“Once it becomes evidence, it goes to the lab,” Hughes stated. “Once I’m invited to a case, I start documenting everything. I keep extensive notes, so when I write up a report, I will have enough data to go off of. If I ever need to testify in court, I will need notes to review. I may not remember the case down to every last detail, so when I’m the expert witness, I have to have notes so that I can testify to the best of my ability.” 

Along with working on cases for coroner’s offices, forensic anthropologists are called to work in other ways.

“Forensic anthropologists are used in human rights cases,” Hughes stated. “These include genocides, mass fatalities, natural disasters, fire investigations, and underwater investigation. Sometimes, we help with water recovery missions.”

The mystery and nature inherent forensic anthropology has led to television shows that portray forensic anthropologists, and criminal cases they work on. Hughes touched upon the benefits as well as the drawbacks of these shows.

“I’m sure many of you have seen ‘Bones,’ ‘CSI,’ or some type of crime show,” Hughes said. “The usual drawback that we anthropologists have is that they portray crime cases incorrectly, and some do. On the other hand, these shows have impacted the interest and the field of anthropology. There has been an increase of interest from the public.”

The increase of interest from public has led to skeletal materials, especially skulls, being turned into merchandise. Hughes also touched upon the pros and cons of this merchandise.

“There is a lot of merchandise out there with skulls on them,” Hughes states. “Skulls are on shirts, book bags, blankets—everywhere. The pros about this merchandise is the publicity, and it’s good for the interest of the public. But, all of this exposure can cause people to forget it’s actually a person behind the skeleton. I want people to keep in mind that bones…skeletal material needs to be treated with respect.”

Hughes works at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as an assistant clinical professor. She earned her doctorate in physical anthropology from the University of California in Santa Cruz. She also taught at Parkland for roughly one year.

Hughes has done extensive research over the years in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology, the latter of which is the study of animal bones.

She has publications covering ancestry estimations, dental materials, population genetics, and cranial morphology as well. Hughes has done research in North America, as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

Her latest work is being published in the American Anthropologist, a journal from the American Anthropological Association.