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Finding the stories behind the skeletons

From Basketmaker sites to crime sites, Fort Lewis College’s Mulhern and students use bones to probe the past

Forget “CSI” and “Bones.” Investigations pursued by real-life forensic anthropologists may not be solved in 45 minutes, but they reveal much more about the human condition than just whodunit.

“We learn things about health, about nutrition, about physical activity,” said Fort Lewis College associate professor Dawn Mulhern, who’s chairwoman of the Anthropology Department. She was recently named the college’s featured scholar for the 2015-2016 school year.

In addition to forensic anthropology, she enjoys researching and teaching skeletal biology, paleopathology, human evolution and repatriation. Before becoming the coordinator for the college’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, she worked for the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in the Repatriation Osteology Laboratory.

“Biological anthropology is just a fascinating subject,” she said, “genetics, human evolution, anatomy, the variability between human physiology and primates. Studying human evolution here is often students’ first in-depth look at the subject, and they find it fascinating because it’s about them.”

Mulhern began her own studies at Cornell University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree before going on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Colorado Boulder. Before beginning her work in Southwest Colorado on the Basketmaker period of the ancestral Puebloans, Mulhern also did fieldwork and skeletal analyses in Giza, Egypt, and with skeletal remains from Sudanese Nubia.

Mulhern came to FLC in 2005 because she genuinely enjoys teaching and wanted to return to the West from the Washington, D.C., area.

While she doesn’t work with either the equipment or speed of “CSI” – she says the lights on the tables would make it impossible to see important details in bones – Mulhern serves as the local forensic anthropologist for several agencies including the state archaeologist’s office, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s Anasazi Heritage Center.

“When there’s some question about remains, they call me,” she said, “Is it human? If it is, what is the context – is it recent or ancient? The great part is that the students get to assist because all the people I work with are happy to have students participate.”

She has found herself hiking into the backcountry and hopping on an all-terrain vehicle to get to bones, she said, but has not yet found herself involved in a criminal investigation.

Mulhern spent May in the Office of the New York City Medical Examiner, one of eight forensic anthropologists who will have the opportunity this year.

“I was able to expand my exposure to more areas, especially trauma,” she said. “The techniques of identifying cause of death can be really subtle, and you need to learn how to interpret them. There are cases when a forensic pathologist can’t do anything more because pretty much what is left is skeleton.”

Anthropologists, she said, work with more than just the skeleton, including examining the context of where it was found, which can be of assistance when determining time and cause of death.

“Our capabilities are becoming really known,” Mulhern said, and the Forensic Studies minor she oversees is proving to be a draw for students. One former student is volunteering with the Department of Defense (Prisoner-Of-War) (Missing-In-Action) Accounting Agency working on recoveries and trying to get a foot in the door. Another, who is graduating in December, is hoping to become a death investigator.

Mulhern herself has been working for several years with former FLC Field School Director Mona Charles on three Basketmaker sites in the area – Falls Creek, Darkmold and Talus Village. The field work and data analysis is collected, she said, and now it’s down to the interpretation and writing.

One of her most interesting recent experiences was working on the remains of 26 people discovered when Ignacio was building its new elementary school.

“I went out thinking they had to be prehistoric, because it was in this area, but it was a historical cemetery where headstones had been removed at some point. It was a glimpse into the earliest days of Ignacio,” Mulhern said.


This story has been changed to reflect Mulhern’s correct titles as associate professor and featured scholar.

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