What bones can teach us

Published: June 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Anthony Falsetti, Ph.D.

Anthony Falsetti

Associate Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology

Eight partial skeletons lie enigmatically on the tables. Skulls, ribs, jaws and pelvic bones are arranged neatly, each skeleton awaiting the researcher’s hypothesis of the possible mechanism of its fate.

A faintly fetid smell permeates the otherwise sterile room; it is a jarring reminder that these skeletons are not plastic models, but remains of living beings.

Tony Falsetti picks up part of a skull, which has been broken into at least three pieces.

“This was the result of some considerable blunt force trauma,” he said, understating a 1-inch hole in the skull where the bone has been broken and chipped. Welcome to another typical day at UF’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory.

When lab director Falsetti tells people what he does for a living, he says the most common response is “Ew, yuck! Tell me a story!”

As a forensic anthropologist, Falsetti is used to this mixed reaction.

“Everyone’s fascinated by mystery,” he said. “People don’t want to do it, but they like hearing about it.”

Recently, Falsetti’s occupation has enjoyed a rise in popularity, thanks to hit television shows such as “CSI” and “Cold Case.”

In fact, there is such a popular demand for the subject matter, Falsetti’s past case files are going to be the subject matter for a new television show on Court TV tentatively named “Positive ID: The Case Files of Dr. Anthony Falsetti.”

Considering the cases Falsetti has worked on throughout his career, it’s easy to see why his field is fascinating to viewers.

In addition to being summoned by federal authorities as part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team to identify remains after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Falsetti also traveled to Thailand in March 2005 to help identify victims of the tsunami that hit southeastern Asia the previous December.

“The tsunami – seeing the magnitude of nature, the power, gives you a newfound respect for nature,” Falsetti said.

One of the most intriguing cases he has ever worked on was assisting the Russians develop a plan to locate and recover the two missing members of Czar Nicholas II’s murdered family in February 1999.

When the Russian royal family was summarily executed on July 17, 1918, and their corpses disfigured to prevent identification, rumors spread that son Alexei and daughter Anastasia survived the slaying and were alive in hiding.

Falsetti had an opportunity to review the nine skeletons previously examined by former UF professor, Dr. Bill Maples, and through careful examination of the 81-year-old remains and the accounts of the slaying, he concurred that the bodies of Alexei and Anastasia must have been hurriedly burned while the Bolsheviks transported the bodies to their shallow grave.

“To be reviewing these skeletal remains, being that close to history, was incredible,” Falsetti said, shaking his head.

Falsetti said he is excited about his upcoming show because it will bring cases such as these to life and show students that not only is forensic anthropology a science; it is also a viable option as an occupation.

“It’s a great opportunity, to apply your knowledge of human variation, to test it yourself,” he said. “[Forensics] is the ultimate application of the theory we learn and teach in the classroom.”

Photo credit: Ray Carson — University Photography

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