Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Forensic Anthropology and Human Identification in Relation to Natural Disasters
Location British Museum - Sackler B
Date and Start Time 27 May, 2016 at 16:00
Sessions 1


  • Catriona Davies (University of Dundee) email
  • Lucina Hackman (University of Dundee) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Natural disasters present unique sets of challenges in relation to forensic anthropology and human identification relating to the body itself and to the wider contexts e.g. the loss of local infrastructure. This panel will promote multidisciplinary discussion between practitioners and academics.

Long Abstract

Mass casualty events, whether caused by geological, weather or climatic changes, present unique and challenging circumstances in which to conduct the process of human identification.

Events such as the floods resulting from the Asian Tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, lightening storms which brought down Air France flight 447 or the landslide in Oso, Washington all necessitated strategic and coordinated approaches to human identification. In addition to the expected challenges relating to the disposition of the victims and the recovery of their remains, the destruction of local infrastructure, the often remote locations, and the presence of local customs relating to the dead all contribute to the intricate task of identifying the deceased. The interdisciplinary and international nature of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) response to natural disasters necessitates discussion and cooperation on a variety of levels, from the individual practitioner to governments; and requires input from those experienced in not only the process of human identification, but also those with knowledge of local customs, religions and languages. Only with effective contribution from all parties can the DVI process be carried out with a smooth efficiency, resulting in the repatriation of the victims to their countries of origin and their families.

This panel will bring together practitioners and academics from a variety of anthropological disciplines including those directly involved in the DVI process and those whose backgrounds may inform the manner in which this process is conducted in both developed and developing regions of the globe.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


International collaboration models for DVI in natural disasters: Future Challenges

Author: Lucy Easthope  email

Short Abstract

An examination of the challenges associated with multi-state collaboration to DVI responses

Long Abstract

A natural disaster resulting in fatalities is highly likely to overwhelm local resources and involve citizens from around the world thus requiring a truly global response.

This presentation firstly explores the challenges for responders when deploying as part of an inter-disciplinary and multi-national DVI response. These include political tensions, financial wranglings and an examination of the logistical challenges. It also highlights the problematic paradigms that currently influence Disaster Victim Identification and their compatibiliity with response to a "natural disaster". It goes on explore the implications, needs and tensions for affected communities particularly in relation to the use of DNA as a primary identifying criteria.

In conclusion it will outline potential models for collaboration in the natural disasters of the future.

Family engagement and traditional anthropological techniques: identifying victims of a landslide without a DNA profile.

Authors: Gillian Fowler (University of Lincoln)  email

Short Abstract

We present a case study of how victims of a landslide disaster were identified and reburied using traditional anthropological techniques without the aid of DNA technology. It is not always possible to use DNA in some contexts and despite this, identifications can still be successfully managed and achieved

Long Abstract

Guatemalan social anthropologists' valuable contribution to the identification process in mass graves is well documented. A landslide disaster, where initially 500 people were reported missing, gave anthropologists the opportunity to adapt the techniques used to identify the civil war dead to a disaster context. This presentation will focus on the identification of victims without the use of DNA technology. Anthropologists began to work within the community to investigate the real number of deaths and to begin to reconstruct community faith in the authorities. The community then supported the idea of recovering the dead, once the anthropologists had gained the trust of the local surviving population. This was achieved through meetings, interviews and observational work. The local authorities were also included in this process to approve the project legally, morally and spiritually. In Guatemala, including the families in the identification process is seen as a positive contribution to the healing cycle, allowing them to gain some control over the process of getting back their loved one identified. We aim to initiate a discussion on how, if any, lessons can be learned from working in a 'non-westernised' international environment where the death toll is inevitably higher in natural disasters than in western scenarios. Positive repercussions can include; mental tranquillity for the families who regain control of the grieving process; building community trust and gaining approval for the team; and finally the family and community are active participants in the process, rather than passive observers.

Humanitarian actors, cultural practices and the identification process following natural disasters

Author: Jan Bikker (ICRC)  email

Short Abstract

The presentation will elaborate on the complex interactions between cultural practices, the role of humanitarian actors and the identification process following natural disasters.

Long Abstract

This year has seen a number of sharp rise in the number of deaths from natural disasters worldwide, most notably due to the Nepal Earthquake and the intense heatwaves in India and Pakistan. Eleven years after the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami, the complexities of forensic human identification in large-scale natural disasters still remains challenging. While the post-tsunami period led to new areas of exploration in terms of international cooperation in DVI, the concept of psychosocial support for surviving relatives and disposition of remains, a number of forensic operational areas remain unexplored. Renewed considerations must be given to DVI processes in regions where capacity and expertise is limited and where cultural, religious and legal practices may further influence the identification process and outcomes. In addition, humanitarian actors have on numerous occasions stepped in to assist with the identification process and support the families of those missing and deceased in remote regions where local authorities may be non-existent and/or have limited capacity. The presentation will elaborate on the complex interactions between cultural practices, the role of humanitarian actors and the identification process in natural disasters.

The Return of Remains: How Can Dignity Be Better Safeguarded?

Author: Sian Cook (British Red Cross)  email

Short Abstract

This is a young scholars attempt to envision what guidelines for facilitating the return of remains to their families and safeguarding dignity might look like. The creation of international protocol is a widely collective process; this paper offers a starting point for further discussion.

Long Abstract

This paper argues that the return of remains deserves greater attention in humanitarian action. When remains are returned in an undignified manner, or not at all, this can harm the deceased person's family and provoke the surrounding community. The inability to return remains has a significant impact on the deceased's family. A conceptual framework - using concepts of posthumous dignity, boundary objects and moral injury - is outlined in this paper. An extensive literature review was conducted to landmark events and publications regarding human remains and the impact of returning remains to families. After examining a variety of sectors and professions for return-of-remains practices, it has been observed that the way in which remains are returned to families, including what they are interred within and surrounded by, is critical to preventing moral injury and other distress to the families. The research also contends that efforts to return remains to families are widely and well received by affected communities; however these efforts require a well-coordinated approach of standardised procedures. Examples of prevailing practices from several professions are used to propose a humanitarian approach for the return of remains to families, with a goal of safeguarding the dignity of the dead and helping families cope with their loss. An analysis of such case material makes possible the formulation of recommendations on how to improve practices in the humanitarian sector. Protecting the dead is a responsibility of the living, and guidance is needed on how to return remains in an appropriate and sensitive manner.

Identifying a common field: on experiencing collaborative research between forensic and social anthropology

Authors: Claudia Merli (Uppsala University)  email
Trudi Buck (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper we explore the possibilities offered by interdisciplinary collaborations between forensic anthropologists and social anthropologists, and present our experience of researching DVI following natural disasters, specifically the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Thailand.

Long Abstract

In this paper we explore the possibilities offered by interdisciplinary collaborations between forensic anthropologists and social anthropologists, and present our experience of researching DVI following natural disasters, specifically the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Thailand. While a strong focus on interdisciplinarity punctuates contemporary academic rhetoric on fostering research grant applications and outputs, the practice of teaming up forensics and social anthropologists is still seldom witnessed, partially due to respective theoretical frameworks and specialist languages that create a challenge to reciprocal enrichment and communication. DVI is a field of study that offers a unique possibility to foster and explore more collaborations of this kind. Basing our reflection on our study of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami DVI processes, we conceive our collaborative endeavour as inscribed in the field of Science, Technology and Medicine (STM), one of the most promising subfields in Medical Anthropology. By investigating the technical and organizational difficulties encountered by multi-national DVI teams, we come to an appreciation not only of the diversity pertaining to the scientific techniques available but also of how these differences translate more complex dynamics related to diverse forms of politics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.