MSU faculty uses forensic anthropology to solve missing persons cases
Jesse Goliath, a Mississippi State University assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, shares his experiences in the field and how he learned to cope with gruesome scenes in his line of work on an episode of “Archaeology after Dark,” Alabama’s Archaeological Society’s podcast. The podcast episode is available on YouTube—“Ask a Forensic Anthropologist.”
On the podcast, Goliath—an alumnus of The Ohio State University— explained how he aids law enforcement at crime scenes. When a deceased body is found, forensic anthropologists use their knowledge of human anatomy, archaeology and culture to discover what happened to the victim.
Goliath differentiated the roles between a forensic anthropologist and a medical examiner or coroner. Forensic anthropologists assist other teams at a crime scene, such as police, district attorneys, FBI, CSI, or medical examiners/coroners, he said.
“We don’t actually do any kind of cause of death analysis. We’re just there to help them with the context of the burial and or with the anatomy and overall osteology,” Goliath said, noting that his field is most often called when a typical autopsy of a corpse cannot be done for various reasons.
When asked by host Daniel Rhodes about the images he encounters at crime scenes, Goliath confirmed that his work involves scenes that can be traumatizing. Still, Goliath said he copes by knowing his work provides answers to mourning families and a voice to the deceased. Support from his colleagues and communicating concerns are two ways Goliath said he handles the challenges of constantly working around death.
“What brings me relief or kind of helps me through it is that we’re bringing closure to these families,” Goliath said.
The realities of Goliath’s work often are not portrayed accurately in crime TV-shows about detective work or solving missing person cases, he said. Goliath said two aspects of his field are falsely portrayed on TV: the lack of dirt on people in the field and the technology used to solve the cases. Goliath and Rhodes laughed as they agreed on how “clean and cool” many characters on TV-shows look, knowing how dirty a day in the field can be in real life.
“Detailed documentation of crimes scenes and evidence, strict chain of custody procedures and extensive lab analyses are crucial but not shown in typical TV crime dramas which focus on action driven storylines,” he said.
Additionally, Goliath said a majority of missing people in the United States are minorities, such as women of color, Native Americans, members of the LGTBQ+ community, and others.
In an attempt to bridge this gap, Goliath has created the Mississippi Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons. His goal for the repository is to have the capability to locate a missing person before they are murdered and lessen the need for forensic anthropologists to work on such cases.
Goliath and his team currently are compiling data on current and past missing person cases in Mississippi to determine the total number of cases and main causes that lead to people remaining missing and undiscovered. His passion for his work and desire to provide answers to grieving families could one day lessen the amount of missing people in Mississippi.
Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, MSU’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures is online at www.amec.msstate.edu.
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