Bradley Adams on how forensic anthropology works: A Working podcast transcript.

Life in the Lab Is Nothing Like CSI—It’s Weirder

Life in the Lab Is Nothing Like CSI—It’s Weirder

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Oct. 2 2015 9:09 AM

How Does a Forensic Anthropologist Work? 

Read what Working host Arun Venugopal asked a forensic anthropologist about his typical workday and his strangest cases. 

Forensic anthropologist Bradley Adams.
Forensic anthropologist Bradley Adams.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Arun Venugopal.

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 4, Episode 3 in which Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC’s Micropolis series, interviews Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist for the city of New York. Adams discusses the impact Sept. 11 had on forensic anthropology in the city, the different types of cases he investigates, and how there are no typical days in his line of work. Plus, Adams tells the story of an unidentified female body in Brooklyn and how he helped uncover a murder in the mafia.

And in a Slate Plus extra, Adams discusses the challenges of identifying a person’s race just by looking at a skull—and takes a closer look at the skull of a person who had been shot in the head during the Civil War.

We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

Arun Venugopal: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Arun Venugopal, a reporter at WNYC in New York and host of its Micropolis series, which takes on issues of race and identity. On today’s episode, we talk with someone who spends all his time with human remains. Well, mostly human. What’s your name and what do you do?

Bradley Adams: My name is Bradley Adams. I’m a forensic anthropologist at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City.

Venugopal: And how long have you been doing this?

Adams: I’ve been in New York City since 2004, but I’ve probably been doing forensic anthropology since the early ’90s. Probably around ’93 or ’94 was when I first started doing casework as a graduate student.

Venugopal: So, tell us what forensic anthropology is.

Adams: A forensic anthropologist is going to be somebody whose specialty is working on the human skeleton.

That’s what I’ve spent a lot of years studying—the human skeleton—and being able to understand every twist and turn and bump and feature on the human skeleton and being able to interpret it. And for forensic anthropology, it’s obviously within the forensic context, within the medical/legal context. So, helping medical examiners determine cause and manner of death and identification of individuals and things like that.

Venugopal: Now, your predecessor, she was the first person to hold the job of forensic anthropologist for the city of New York?

Adams: That’s right. She was. Before that, they had had people as consultants doing forensic anthropology casework. She was the first full time employee of the agency.

Venugopal: Why was she the first? Is this a relatively new field? Was there not as much of a demand for that kind of service back then?

Adams: I think back then and even today, it’s not commonplace for every medical examiner’s office to have a forensic anthropologist.

It’s probably more of an exception that the rule, to be honest with you. There’s certainly a lot more people interested in wanting to do forensic anthropology than there are positions for. I think the good thing is you’re seeing more and more offices start to appreciate the role, the benefit, that a forensic anthropologist can bring to an office. I think New York City was one of the earlier ones to recognize that. I think it’s because a lot of that’s obviously due to Amy.

When she was hired, she was actually going to split her time between doing anthropology and working with the DNA lab. Then it ended up that there was enough casework. She really never did any of the DNA side of things. So, she basically did full-time anthropology. Very soon after that were the events of 9/11. I think that really brought anthropology into its own in New York City, because of the complexity of working with the 9/11 victims, the level of body fragmentation there, the mixing with debris, and the whole complexity of that process.

That’s where an anthropologist is working with small bone fragments. You know, sometimes even knowing what’s building debris versus bone. You’re talking very small—the size-of-a-penny–type fragments. There may be something identifiable as human or not, to at least segregate this stuff out.

It’s very, very challenging. Anthropology played a big role in morgue operations and even work out at the landfill and different aspects there. That’s another component that I haven’t mentioned—anthropologists working on the disaster side of things. So, I think with the World Trade Center, anthropology really, really took hold, not only from casework but larger issues from disaster preparedness. And so, from that point I think the agency here has embraced anthropology and we’ve actually been able to grow the department.

So, now that there’s several anthropologists that work here.

Venugopal: So, give me a sense one particularly challenging case. I mean, you’re getting there not when a body is entirely intact, right? You’re often getting there when a body just may be bones, right? And so, sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what you’re looking at, correct?

Adams: Yeah, definitely. If the anthropology group is going to respond to the scene, if we’re going to go out to the field, it’s not going to be your kind of typical death scene of a person found dead in their locked apartment.

For that, an anthropologist is not going to go. The agency has death investigators and they will go do that. If you get something with a very decomposed body outside, where maybe there are remains that have been scattered for one reason or another, we would go to that. We get any case where there’s a possibility of a buried body. We would go there.

If skeletal remains are found—somebody sees bones in a dumpster and they see they’re big, they think they might be human—we’ll either respond to the scene, or a lot of times I encourage the officer at the scene or our death investigator when they get there to send me pictures. Because one of the first things is, are they human or not? And a lot of times, people—maybe because of the crime shows and everything—may see a dumpster with bones in it and think, Oh, there’s a dead body in there. And really, somebody threw out the pork ribs from the night before, and they’re not human.

So, it doesn’t need to be anything anybody responds to. You don’t need to send detectives out there to the crime scene. You don’t need to send all this because they’re not even human bones. It could totally range from all over the place.

Venugopal: So, sometimes you get yourself like somebody’s barbecue leftovers.

Adams: Oh, absolutely. We had a call today about that, with—you know, somebody sees some bones, and we need to make the call: Are these human or not? And sometimes even if they’re human, they don’t have to be a forensic case.

There’s lot of cemeteries around New York City, and we had a case in Queens not too long ago. There was some utility construction happening. They were doing some excavation. They hit some bones. We were notified. And it turned out they were actually human bones, but they were from a burial from the 1800s, like an old grave that had been forgotten. So, that’s not a forensic case. That’s not something our office really does, other than notify the proper people to further investigate. Is this a cemetery here? Is this some isolated thing? But it’s not a forensic case of somebody that needs a death certificate and a cause or manner of death issued.

So, yes. We get those. We get all kinds of things. And that’s a lot of times. In anthropology, you get the weird, unusual stuff. And it ends up being pretty interesting cases.

Venugopal: So, tell me about one of them. Take me to one that was particularly challenging. A body is found in a field somewhere in the five boroughs.

Adams: OK.

Venugopal: And take me through the steps that finally helped you identify who this person was.

Adams: Well, I’ll tell you one that’s challenging, but it doesn’t have the resolution of figuring out who the person was. But because it’s a recent case, it’s one we’re still working on. I’ll walk you through the steps. So, I got the initial call from NYPD. We have a very good working relationship with a lot of the crime scene unit and the K-9 guys and everybody.

So, I get a call from NYPD saying that they’re at a scene and they think they’ve got the skeletal remains of a young child. I’m at my house. This call comes at night. (You can get called any time.) And so, the first thing I say is, “Send me some pictures,” because I want to confirm it’s actually human. Because sometimes, again, people see bones and they might in their head think they’re human. So, he sends me some photographs and I look at them on the Blackberry.

And they’re actually human. Like, this is actually human. But they’re not from a child. These are bones from an adult. But they’re definitely, definitely human. So, we’ll get the team together and go out to the scene.

Venugopal: Where was the scene?

Adams: This one was in Brooklyn.

Venugopal: Where? Can you tell me?

Adams: This was over by Coney Island area. So, we head out there the next morning, because at this time it was dark.

It was in kind of a wooded area. So, we went out the next morning. And in this case, we had the remains of basically the torso. Also nearby were some of the limbs, like the arms and the legs. And it became very interesting in that case, because the body had obviously been dismembered. But we were able to look at this and say that it was a female. She was in her late 20s to mid-30s.

There was some mummified tissue. In this case, we were actually able to look, and on the leg there was a faded tattoo. We used some infrared photography when we got back to the lab, took all the remains back to the lab. We were able to visualize this tattoo with the naked eye, but you couldn’t really tell what it was. You just knew that it looked like there was sort of design there. Once we used the infrared photography, you could see there was a heart with a little banner going across it, and it looked like the name Monique.

We’ve got a name. We don’t know if that’s the decedent’s name, or if that’s somebody—a child, a mother, whoever. But we’ve got a lot going towards identification in this case. And this is a very recent case that is still not solved. We were able to get a DNA profile from this. We submitted a bone sample. We got a full DNA profile. That DNA profile was compared against the national missing persons database and convicted offender database.

It didn’t hit. There was a hand also recovered that we were able to get fingerprints. So, the decedent—the dead person’s fingerprints, those were run against all the fingerprint databases and hasn’t hit. So, here we’ve got a good profile based on our skeletal analysis, knowing that this is a younger adult. We’ve got fingerprints. We’ve got DNA. We’ve got so much going for this case as far as identification, and we still don’t know who it is.

It certainly must be a homicide. But really, the investigation is limited for the detectives working on the case, because without knowing who the person is, it becomes very difficult for them to investigate who killed this person.

Venugopal: And do you know how she died?

Adams: No, we don’t. One of the problems with remains that are very badly skeletonized is that there is a potential that somebody gets killed without any sort of impact to the skeleton.

You could potentially strangle somebody and not break any bones. You can stab somebody and not hit any bones, but still kill them because you’re hitting vital organs. I guess it would be possible to be shot, and the bullet doesn’t hit any bones. So, once all the tissue is gone, it is potentially more difficult to say.

Venugopal: Tell me of a case where you found some resolution.

Adams: There was a really interesting, kind of bizarre case that I think has a nice beginning, middle, and end.

It was from several years ago. The FBI was doing an investigation and it was nothing, not a homicide investigation. It was basically just a mafia loansharking type of investigation. They had a guy, a cooperating witness, who was wearing a wire and collecting information for them in this loansharking case. He was in a vehicle talking to somebody, who obviously didn’t know he was being recorded.

This guy started complaining that he had killed somebody. It was a hit for the mob, and he had not been paid. He was basically just venting because he was very upset that he didn’t get paid for this murder that he committed. So, the FBI investigation, once they have this, it switches to a potential homicide investigation. They make arrests, they get more people to cooperate and give them information. The story comes out that the mob wanted this guy killed because he kind of had a big mouth and was talking.

So, they lured him to this house in Staten Island where the plan was that this guy was going to kill him—the guy with the big mouth. So, that happens. He lures him to the house and kills him, and then devises this plan to get rid of the body, where he goes to the hardware store and gets gloves and plastic and drop cloths and saws and things like that.

He gets some friends of his, and then they go back to this house in Staten Island to make the body go away. The story was that they cut up the body, and then they took it down into the basement and they burned it in the furnace. So, the FBI investigators go to the scene and they search where the body was supposedly stored, and they don’t find any blood evidence there.

They go into the kitchen where the body was supposedly dismembered. They don’t find anything there. They go into the furnace to look where the body was supposedly burned. And during the lag time between when this murder happened and when the FBI got the information, the house had the furnace replaced. The old one had been hauled off to a scrapyard and it was gone. So, at this point, they don’t have anything.

Eventually, going through the house, they found one single drop of blood that they were able to DNA type back to this missing person who was supposedly killed. I know this isn’t sounding like an anthropology case yet, but here’s where the twist come. At this point, I have no involvement, right? This is all an FBI case. But I get a call because they get additional information. One of their informants says, after this body was burned in this furnace, all of the ashes were scooped out and they were carried out to the front yard.

They opened a manhole and they dumped them into the septic tank. So, I get this call saying, “Hey, doc. If there were bones put in a septic tank, would they still be there?”

And I said, “Yes, they would.” Because at the point when bones are really burned, they almost like turn to a gravel type consistency. So, they would have sank to the bottom of the septic tank. I’m not sure that was the answer they were hoping for. Because then the next step is to dig up the front yard and take out the contents of the septic tank, right?

So, we go out there and we excavate the septic tank, and using a big vacuum truck, suck out all of the sludge in the septic tank into a truck that can then be evaluated offsite. We go through with the FBI evidence response team folks, and go through this disgusting septic tank sludge, and don’t find anything until like the very last few scoops of sludge come out of the truck. Then, we find bone fragments. Not a lot, but some bone fragments. Very small pieces. And there was one bone that was identifiable as a human fingertip. Just the bone right underneath your fingernail. And then, like 45 or 50 grams of other bones.

Like a full body cremation, you should get around 3,000 grams. We’ve got 45 grams. So, we have enough that they were pretty excited that we had human bones in a septic tank. The story is going along very good. They had enough that it was going along to trial. So, 11 days before the trial happens, I get another call. And they say, “Hey, we got more information that supposedly the guy who took the furnace out to the scrapyard said it was filled with all kinds of debris and stuff. And he dumped the contents of that behind the house. Do you think they would still be there?”

 And I said, “Yeah, I think they would still be there if they got dumped out behind this house because it’s going to be like gravel. So, we should definitely, definitely go look.” So, we went to the site. We cleared out some of the vegetation. In one area, I saw some kind of charred bricks and things.

We cleared that out. There were these plants growing over it, so we cleared all that out. A few days later we realized those plants were poison ivy, which was not very good. Underneath that was all this charred material. And you could just see bone fragments. We found knife blades. We found saw blades. We found parts of a cellphone. We found parts of a metal insole of a shoe. We found almost 2 pounds of bones that came out of there. From the head to the toe. And on these bone fragments, which were all very burned, we could see saw marks. We knew that the body had been dismembered. We had bones representing the head to the foot. Everything was there. It was everything. I think some stuff was still in the furnace, but now we had a very large percentage of the body of the guy that was supposedly put into the septic tank. Clearly they didn’t get much of everything. So, then it went to trial.

They had even more evidence than they had before. We were able to take measurements off of the cut marks on the bones and compare those to exemplars of the exact type of saw from a receipt from the hardware store. The measurements and everything matched up perfectly. It was a really nice case. It went to trial. The guy got 25 years to life for the murder. It was really, I think, a great example of anthropology from the start of the investigation, being at the scene, to the lab analysis, analyzing the burn fragments, looking at the dismemberment cut marks in the bone, to the actual trial conviction.

Venugopal: That’s some story. That’s great.

Adams: I think that’s a very interesting story. It has some weird components. I think that’s the only septic tank case that I’ve had.

Venugopal: Your only septic tank story.

Adams: And hopefully the last, right?

Venugopal: Yeah, hopefully the last.

So, you’ve got a couple skulls sitting here next to my arm. Why don’t you tell me a few of the things that we can learn by just looking at these sample skulls here?

Adams: OK. From the skulls, if we’re talking about identification, what the anthropologists are going to do is determine what’s called the biological profile. The biological profile would be looking at somebody’s skeleton and saying what they would have identified as in life, as far as like their age at death, the sex of the individual, their ancestry, how tall they were.

Every one of those components is going to help missing persons detectives narrow down the pool of potential individuals that this could be. The skull is going to be really critical for a lot of that. Especially looking at whether the person is male or female. The skull is probably second best to the pelvis.

So, we would look at features on the skull. Do you see big brow ridges over the eyes? Then that’s something that’s going to be more typical of a male than a female. Do you see prominent muscle markings on the back of the neck? Again, that’s going to be more male than female. And generally, the male skull is going to be more robust, so, larger. But the pelvis in adults is going to tell you more of the true story. That’s simply because the female pelvis is going to be configured quite differently than a male pelvis to allow for childbirth.

Speaking of children, it’s sort of interesting. If we had the skeleton of, say, a very young child, a young boy or a young girl, just a few years old, we really wouldn’t be able to look at the bones by themselves and say that this was a boy or a girl. You don’t really get those markers in the skeleton that help you say male or female from a gross analysis until after puberty. The most accurate way to determine if it’s a boy or a girl is probably going to be through DNA analysis.

Venugopal: Do you see a fair number of kids?

Adams: Not skeletonized. I wouldn’t say we never have. But it’s rare that there’s a skeletonized child. But we do sadly get a fair number of child abuse cases. Anthropology won’t work with every single case, but there’s certainly cases that we will lend our expertise to, in order to do the analysis. There can be some fractures on the skull, or quite commonly there’s rib fractures.

So, the medical examiner might ask us to take a look to help document. If we can tell the number of blows to the head—is there more than one?—we can do some photography and documentation of where the fractures are. Sometimes we’ll get ribs that we will clean up so that we can look at the bone. Say the story coming from the parent or the caregiver is that the baby was on a changing table and fell on the floor, and this was the first time this has ever happened. Otherwise it’s been happy, healthy. We look at the ribs and we can see areas that have larger callouses showing a previous fracture that would have happened at least weeks prior.

We’ve had cases where you see at least three episodes, where you see well-healed fractures. You see fractures that are in the early stages of healing. And then you see fractures that show no signs of healing.

So, you’ve got fractures that could have happened weeks ago to months ago. You’ve got fractures that happened in the intermediate time. And then you’ve got fractures that show no healing, which means they happened around the time the baby died. This is something that can be very critical and crucial to the prosecution’s development of the case, to see if the story that the skeleton is saying matches the story that’s coming from the caregiver or the family that was with this child.

Venugopal: What about when you’re just working on a case here in the lab, and you’re just doing your thing. Do you ever feel a sense of the humanity of the person? Or, is it still pretty much detached?

Adams: I think over time you’ve got to get a little bit desensitized to it. Working with the babies and the kids, I don’t think you ever really get used to that. That’s always kind of tough. But the other stuff, I don’t think you want your emotions to really get involved and cloud your judgment on the analysis you’re doing and what you’re looking at.

I think after this long, who knows? My grandfather was a funeral director, which is a little odd that this is what I’m doing now. Not that it’s funeral directing, but it’s still working with death. I remember growing up in Kansas, and as a kid I would spend the summers in the funeral home. Maybe that desensitized me from youth. To get to the garage, you’d literally go through the embalming room. To get to my bedroom, you would go through the casket display room. Looking back on it, it’s sort of an unusual childhood. But maybe it was formative.

Venugopal: That’s interesting. So, there were these early signs—things that perhaps made this feel a little less exotic.

Adams: Maybe. I certainly never wanted to be a funeral director. But, I don’t know. That’s something I kind of look back on and wonder. Did that have anything to do with it?

It’s not like I was in there assisting or anything. But just being surrounded, I definitely saw my share of dead bodies as a child. That, for some reason, seemed normal. Doesn’t everybody spend the summers in a funeral home? Apparently not.

Venugopal: All of us, of course. I can admit, when we first met downstairs and you were showing me some of these skeletons laid out, and you were telling me the stories. You were showing me these sawing marks, like these cut marks, I was kind of creeped out by it. I was just thinking, when you go to a crime scene and you’re handling even some soft tissue, flesh on some bones, and stuff like that. Does that ever feel eerie?

Adams: No. I mean, I think that’s part of the training. Even working as a grad student at Tennessee, right at the research facility and being around decomposing bodies. To be honest with you, when I went to grad school, like I said, I was interested in archaeology first, and just dry bones.

I didn’t have any interest in the soft tissue. I didn’t know at the time. Once I thought, Wow, this forensic stuff, I was there. I got a little taste of it, a little glimpse of it. I thought it could be interesting. But there was still kind of the unknown factor. Am I going to puke the first time I have to stick my hands into a decomposing body? Or, am I going to be OK with it? I wouldn't say it’s pleasant, but you get used to it. It was something that I realized I could do.

It’s certainly not for everybody. The same way I don’t want to be a medical doctor. I don’t want to put my hands all over a living person. To me, that seems kind of gross. I don’t want to poke and prod somebody. I’m much, much happier working with dead people than the living. But everybody’s got their own niche. I think this was something that I could have been completely repulsed by. And I’m sure that does happen to people. People that see it on TV think, Oh, I want to be a forensic anthropologist. It looks so cool.

You don’t catch that much on TV. So, the reality of it could be very different than what people envision in their head. That every case is going to be these white clean bones, and it’s going to be this super sexy job and everything like that. It’s not reality.

Venugopal: Thanks for listening to the episode of working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at And dig through our first three seasons at

This episode was produced by Jason de Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Arun Venugopal. See you next time on Working.

This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Venugopal: So, this particular skull. What can you tell me about this? I see some holes here and there.

Adams: Yeah, this is actually a print we did of a skull. A colleague of mine sent a CT he’d taken of a skull from the Civil War. We wanted to test the 3-D printer. He was interested in seeing how the resolution was on the CT he took. So, he took the CT, sent me the data and—

Venugopal: And by CT, you’re talking about a CAT scan?

Adams: CAT scan, right. Took a CAT scan. So, we had took this data, converted to an STL print file for the 3-D printer, and printed it out. And the resolution is remarkable.

You can see all the sutures on there. This person had been shot in the head. You can see an entrance and an exit. On the left side here, you’ve got kind of circular hole. That’s the entrance. And then opposite that, a very large hole with what’s called external beveling, which is where the outer table of the skull is lifted away. So, this is where the bullet came out.

Venugopal: Is there any reason to believe that the location of this entrance hole means that he was shot at close range or anything like that?

Adams: No. No, I wouldn’t make that sort of interpretation. That would be very difficult to say from an analysis of the bone.

Venugopal: I’ve watched just enough movies to feel like an authority.

Adams: Yeah. You’re probably right. But the medical examiners would be able to tell that more by looking at soft tissue defects. Again, that’s outside my area of expertise. But from the analysis of the bone itself, basically all we can really say is that’s a very nice classic entrance.

Then, the opposite side is an exit, looking at kind of how the bone breaks and the size of the defect and things like that.

Venugopal: And so, you can tell aspects of race, ethnicity, or whatever from looking at a skull.

Adams: In theory. That’s the best case. But if you’re going to be able to do it from anywhere in the skeleton, you’re going to do it from the skull. But race or ancestry is probably one of the more challenging things we do, as far as the biological profile component of it. Just because there’s so much human variation, and not everybody fits nice and cleanly into these preconceived groups.

This skull that we have here, this Civil War guy, is textbook Caucasian—white features. You’ve got a very narrow, tall nose. Just the face, the distance between the eyes here is pretty narrow. Everything in the shape of the face here is kind of your classic white guy look. But this skull we brought up—this is kind of hyperexaggerating—but see how this nose is really broad and low compared to that other one?

Venugopal: Yeah.

Adams: So, this is going be more consistent with a black individual. The distance between the eyes here is more broad than the white individual’s, which is more narrow. There’s going to be features in the midface that are going to be more telling as far as somebody’s ancestry.

But again, you’ve got these different groups. Like the term Hispanic. That’s very broad. You could be Hispanic and have more Asian features. You could have more white features. You could have black features. That’s more of language group. But still, when we think of the Southwest and the border crossers, there’s a lot of border crosser fatalities. They’re looking at a Hispanic population, which is generally going to be from Central America—Mexico, places like that. That could be a very different Hispanic population than what we see in New York City.

Ancestry, the long and the short of it is, yes, we can do it. If we’re going to be able to do it, we can do it from an analysis of the skull. And we’ll take measurements and do gross morphology to determine that.

But it’s not always very clear. Sometimes it can be very difficult. And I don’t have a problem, in a report for ancestry, to just say it’s indeterminate, or I’m seeing a mixture of features. Because I would rather do that than tell a detective this is a white male, and they don’t look at Hispanic males or different groups. It actually ends up hindering the investigation instead of helping it.