Hello, unidentified individuals. I use that term frequently. Unidentified individuals.
My name is Amber Plemons. I am identified. I have the ability to speak and advocate for myself. But what happens when unidentified human skeletal remains are discovered? Their voice has to be restored through someone else, whether the goal is to provide justice for a cruel act bestowed upon them or closure for loved ones.
I am a third year PhD student in Biological Anthropology, focusing in Forensic Anthropology. As a forensic anthropologist, much of my days are spent attempting to narrow down candidate lists for identifying unknown persons, researching new methods to improve identification efforts, or improving and building upon these established methods.
I began this career path years ago (more than I care or am willing to admit) at Texas State University, where I received a B.S. in Anthropology, followed by my M.A. in Applied Anthropology at Mississippi State University. At Mississippi State, “the other MSU”, I managed databases for prehistoric and historic skeletal assemblages. Here, I realized the power of digital curation of information for past populations, both biological and cultural material, and became interested in digital projects involving bioarchaeological and forensic skeletal collections.
At “the real MSU”, Michigan State University, I work with Dr. Joseph Hefner to build a reference databank of cranial macromorphoscopic trait data, traits used to estimate ancestry in skeletal remains. The goal of this project is to record the patterns of trait variation across the world in hopes of increasing accuracy and reliability of ancestry estimations. By folding these efforts into a digital project, we increase the ability to exchange data with researchers around the world. This is what encouraged me to become a CHI Fellow, where I hope to map trait expressions to create a visual representation of human craniofacial variation. We can then easily relate trait variation patterns to geographic barriers, climate and humidity, population histories, and genetic data to understand what shapes craniofacial morphology. This project will help to improve and refine ancestry estimations and aid in increasing the likelihood of identifying ‘unidentified individuals’.