Anthro Ticker

Skeletons found under Afghan Presidential Palace. What Happens Next?

Parts of two human skeletons found at Afghan Presidential Palace October 5, 2015 (Image: Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

Imagine you are renovating your home, and as you break ground towards your new dream kitchen, you also break into a tomb or two.

This happens more often than you might think!

It happened just the other day to Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president. In the Afghan Presidential Palace, contractors were working on some renovations, and under the kitchen, the remains of two full skeletons were found.

Parts of two human skeletons found at Afghan Presidential Palace October 5, 2015 (Image: Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

Parts of two human skeletons found at Afghan Presidential Palace October 5, 2015 (Image: Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

In cases like these, work stops immediately, the authorities are called in and the investigation begins.

One of the first questions that an expert will need to answer is “Is it human?”

You may think that this should be a no brainer, but there are many factors that may make this a difficult question to answer. I studied osteology with NYC Forensic anthropologist, Bradley Adams, and he provided many examples of mistaken bone identity.

For example, a decomposing or skeletonized bear paw looks an awful lot like a human foot, especially to the untrained eye.

Image via Sims, M.E. 2007. Comparison of Black Bear Paws to Human Hands and Feet. Identification Guides for Wildlife Law Enforcement No. 11. USFWS, National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, Ashland, OR.

Image via Sims, M.E. 2007. Comparison of Black Bear Paws to Human Hands and Feet. Identification Guides for Wildlife Law Enforcement No. 11. USFWS, National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, Ashland, OR.

Once the determination as ‘human’ is made, the remains are brought in for further forensic examination.

Forensic examinations will figure out how many sets of remains are represented. If a full skeleton is brought in, but then it is discovered that there are two left femurs (thigh bones), the team will need to go back out to the site and look for another body. Otherwise this individual has a very, very strange skeleton.

The exams also include a biological profile- which is a report that has details like estimated age, sex, height, ancestry, and any pathological conditions that may help to narrow down the identification of the individual (s).

The age of the bones is also determined. This is really important. Depending on the state or federal law that an anthropologist is working in, how long the body has been dead may determine if the remains are considered evidence in a crime investigation or a bit of history or “of antiquity”.

For example, bones buried 10 years ago with no found record of death may open a criminal investigation; while bones found to be from the Bronze Age may lead to a museum exhibit.

So what happens to the bones found underneath that kitchen in Presidential Palace? The palace issued a statement that the remains would be submitted for a forensic examination by a commission that will include representatives of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Physicians for Human Rights.

Because Afghanistan has a history of war and mass graves have been found in connection to wars in the area, it is necessary for the investigating team to include human rights representatives. Determining cause of death will play an important role in this particular investigation.

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