Operation ID 

Despite being Saturday, grad students were busy at the facility today, so I was able to spend much of the day cleaning more hair samples. I need to remove all the soil, vegetation and “other” materials so that I will be able to measure the elements and isotope composition of just the hair. It’s tedious work, but I’m actually quite happy, because I’m going to be able to analyze more samples than I initially thought. Later on, the hair will also undergo chemical cleaning. I’ll save part to examine under the microscope to see if the physical structure has changed, but most of it will be ground up in a ball mill cooled by liquid nitrogen. We need to keep the hair cold when grinding so that it will be brittle and can be ground very fine.

The students here at Texas State are particularly busy this weekend because next week students from the University of Indianapolis will be here. The Indianapolis students will learn how to write up the forensic reports for the border crossers in Operation ID. In 2011-2013, Brooks County, Texas had a surge of 296 migrants who died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. Overwhelmed, and with no funds to cover investigation or burial, the migrants were buried in a mass grave with very little attempt to identify them. As Dr. Spradley, PI of the project, points out, that’s equivalent to a Boeing 737 crashing. Mostly staffed by volunteers, Texas State and the University of Indianapolis have exhumed many of these migrants and are trying to identify them through a combination of physical traits inferred from forensic anthropology and personal effects.

Personal effects of one of the migrants.

Personal effects of one of the migrants.

Although there are larger mass graves in other parts of the world, I hadn’t thought there would be mass graves in the US in 2013! They suspect that many of the migrants are from Guatemala, while many of the migrants who cross the Arizona border are from Mexico. This signal of different geographic origins should show up very clearly in the stable isotope signatures, and I would love to be able to assist this group in the future so that the families of the missing have closure.