Expert Q&A: Diane L. France

An interview with Diane L. France author of Comparative Bone Identification: Human Subadult to Nonhuman

Read this article in its original format in the ETM Digital Edition!

Dr. Diane L. France is a forensic anthropologist who has been recognized as an expert by multiple district courts in Colorado and Wisconsin. She taught anthropology for several years at Colorado State University and was the director for the university’s Laboratory of Human Identification for more than 20 years. She now owns and directs the Human Identification Laboratory of Colorado, an independent laboratory. In addition, she owns France Custom Casting, which provides museum quality replicas of forensic specimens and fragile originals.

France is serving her fifth three-year term on the Board of Directors of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (the certification board for forensic anthropology), and served five years as its president. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and was awarded the T. Dale Stewart Award by the Physical Anthropology section of the AAFS in 2010. She served eight years on the Board of Trustees of the Forensic Science Foundation, half of which she was its Vice Chairman. In 1989, she joined NecroSearch International, Inc., a multidisciplinary volunteer organization that assists law enforcement in the location of clandestine graves and the recovery of remains and evidence from outdoor scenes. France is currently that group’s president.

In 2004, France was the subject of a biography entitled Bone Detective: The Story of Forensic Anthropologist Diane France by Lorraine Jean Hopping, published by Joseph Henry Press/Scholastic Press as one of a ten-volume series for school children, Women’s Adventures in Science, sponsored by the National Academies of Science. She is the author of four professional books and numerous other publications.

Find an excerpt from this title in our Digital Edition

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What inspired you to create these books on comparative bone identification?

Diane L. France: I grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado, a few steps away from wide open spaces that continued for 60 miles in any direction. I was curious about the bones and plants I came across in my wanderings, and collected quite a few of them, but I became particularly passionate about bones after an osteology course early in college. When I saw the human skeletons on tables and after I learned how much we can understand about a person by studying their skeleton, I immediately changed my major to physical/forensic anthropology. Just as we can learn about a human by studying the skeleton, we can also learn about what a nonhuman animal eats and how it moves by studying its skeleton. This is important not only in a forensic context, but also when trying to understand fossilized animals that are now extinct. Most people who know human osteology can tell when a bone is not human, but there are a few human bone mimics that might fool someone who does not also know nonhuman osteology, such as a partial bird humerus that looks like a human clavicle and an alligator metacarpal that looks like a human proximal phalanx.

I have been having a wonderful time going to different museums to photograph bones for the books, and I am also passionate about photography. These books are a way to combine those two interests. Now if I could only find a way to work chocolate in to the mix...

ETM: Can you share any stories of mistaken identity—where you were called in to examine skeletal remains that turned out to be nonhuman... or cases where bones were dismissed by non-experts as nonhuman but turned out to be human?

France: I think every forensic anthropologist has at least one story like that. It is a lot of fun to be asked to a scene and be able to give law enforcement information about remains from a distance. Various agencies have purchased my books or DVD but they still email or text me photographs of suspected human remains to identify, and about 90% of the time I can identify them as human or nonhuman within a few seconds, which is also immensely satisfying.

Occasionally remains presented to me by law enforcement are thought to be nonhuman when they are in fact human, but usually the bones turn out to be nonhuman. An archaeologist discovered remains in a cave in western Colorado several years ago. The coroner, law enforcement, an agent from the Bureau of Land Management (it was on BLM land), the archaeologist, and I formed a convoy to the scene (a trip of about 150 miles in my case), and we walked two miles on a hot, dusty trail to the cave. As the archaeologist identified the remains as a human infant, there was crime scene tape around the cave and an officer stayed overnight guarding the scene. The bones did, in fact, turn out to be an infant, but they were those of a porcupine! I was a bit concerned that the next set of remains he discovered might be human, but he would be too embarrassed to call authorities.

Also, human remains are usually found within a context (clothing and other artifacts) that suggests that they are human. Remains associated with a flannel shirt, shoes, and a decomposing roll of film were sealed with evidence tape and brought to my laboratory. The remains were of a coyote! A well-dressed (apparently) coyote, but a coyote nonetheless.

ETM: You are the author of two photographic atlases on bone indentification. How do Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification and Comparative Bone Identification: Human Subadult to Nonhuman differ?

France: The first book (Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification) focuses on adult human bones and compares them, for the most part, to adult nonhuman mammals. The Human Subadult to Nonhuman book shows human subadults at various ages from full term to about 20 years and compares them to primarily adult nonhuman remains (although there are some subadult nonhumans as well). Whereas the first book concentrated on mammals, the second book includes marine mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and an amphibian (frog). Each book contains around 800 pages and over 3000 photographs. The second book also includes radiographs of humans of different ages to show the development of different bones. The next book in the series will focus on radiographs. There is only a little overlap in subject matter between these books.

Human bones are often confused with animals used for food, as they are the most frequently encountered at picnic areas and in back yards. Partial pork and beef ribs, beef roast bones, pork knees (as ham bones), and chicken bones are the most frequently encountered, and the photographs of them end up in my inbox. Chicken thighs and drumsticks are the most frequently confused with human infants, and there are only subtle differences between them. This new book goes into those differences in more detail.

ETM: What resources should investigators employ when they encounter skeletal remains?

France: If investigators find a questionable bone, they should consult with an expert in forensic or physical anthropology with a concentration in human osteology. In most circumstances, a physical anthropologist who has had a concentration in osteology will be able to determine if the remains are not human, but not all physical anthropologists have studied nonhuman osteology, so they may not be able to determine what species the bone represents. Investigators should usually not consult a physician or a nurse because, even though they are experts in the human body, they are almost never trained in dry-bone osteology. Many times I have been consulted well into an investigation of human remains because people in the medical field said that the remains were human when they were not. I don’t consult with a forensic anthropologist to have my thyroid checked, and I would not consult a physician about the species identification of dry bones.

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