UBC archeologist partners with coroner to solve cold cases

From cold cases to cavemen, a UBC archeologist is solving buried mysteries using technologies that would make Indiana Jones trade in his trusty whip.

With lasers and powerful scientific techniques, UBC anthropology professor Michael Richards is pioneering the use of isotopes—proteins found in bones and hair—to determine the origins of archeological artifacts.

“Isotopes give us a direct measure of the key characteristics of an artifact,” says Richards, also a researcher at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “That allows us to assess objects faster and more accurately, eliminating much of the traditional guesswork.”

This month, Richards will open a new $1-million lab as part of the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s $55.5-million expansion project. It will be the only lab in Canada—and one of a handful around the globe— equipped for archeological research using isotopes.

For the past six years, Richards has been travelling the world, taking geologic samples for a global isotope mapping project that will help researchers to better understand the migration patterns and diets of early humans as they began moving around the planet tens of thousands of years ago.

While his methods have been applauded within the archeology community—Richards receives regular requests for testing from international colleagues—they are now attracting interest from City of Vancouver’s Coroner Office.

In the first partnership of its kind in Canada, Richards and his students are testing the coldest of the cold cases—200 sets of unidentified B.C. human remains—with the goal of separating so-called forensic cases, or suspicious modern deaths, from “archeological” ones.

According to Coroner Stephen Fonseca, the partnership has ruled out a number of centuries-old remains, allowing his office to focus their efforts on recent cases. “He closed five cases for us today,” Fonseca said in a recent interview at Richard’s lab. “That’s huge—five in one day.”

Richards says several cases suspected of being archeological were in fact recent deaths, which require continued investigation. “We can immediately tell who was born after 1950, because isotopes in our bones and teeth possess a specific form of carbon that comes from when the nuclear bomb was tested in that era,” he says. “Scary, but true.”

For pre-Atomic specimens, Richards reads isotopes in teeth and jaws to determine eating patterns. “Our diet has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, so seeing the traditional marine diet of B.C.’s coastal peoples enables us to categorize those cases as historical,” he says.

“If we find evidence of our modern diet, we obviously know what we’re dealing with,” Richards adds, noting that one case that has been returned to a Vancouver Island First Nation was more than 2,100 years old.

This year, Richards and his students will be expanding his isotope mapping project—which has focused on Europe and Asia so far—to B.C. and the rest of Canada. Knowing where the water and plants a body has consumed are from, he says, will allow him to cross-reference these geologic imprints and improve his ability to determine geographic origins.

“Improving our ability to identify the geographic origins of species will dramatically increase our ability to solve these mysteries,” Richards says.

Richards’ lab was made possible with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Learn more about the Dept. of Anthropology at: www.anth.ubc.ca.

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