Fall 2011

Osteobiography: An Interview with Clyde Snow

Forensic anthropology and the law

Eyal Weizman and Clyde Snow

The application of forensic anthropology in the context of war crime investigations emerged in the mid-1980s with the exhumations undertaken for the junta trials in Argentina, and gained prominence after the end of the Cold War with exhumations in former Yugoslavia, as well as Central Africa and Guatemala. Dead bodies in mass graves, once simply sites of commemoration, turned into epistemic resources from which precise details of war crimes could be reconstructed as part of a legal process.

Since the 1970s, Clyde Snow has been one of the most prominent forensic anthropologists in the world, examining the remains of King Tutankhamun, the dead from General Custer’s battle at Little Bighorn, and Dr. Josef Mengele, among others. Snow pioneered the use of forensic anthropology in investigating war crimes committed by states, and trained many of the founding members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, with whom he has worked on cases around the world. Based in Oklahoma City, Snow spoke to Eyal Weizman in Dublin, Ireland, in April 2011.

Eyal Weizman: I’d like to start by asking about one of your earlier investigations—the examination that led to the identification of the remains of Joseph Mengele. Can you tell us how this came about?

Clyde Snow: In the summer of 1985, Mengele’s remains were discovered in a grave in a small town in Brazil called Embu des Artes. I was asked by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to put together a team that could go to Brazil to investigate the skeleton. I asked human rights activist Eric Stover to join me because he is fluent in Portuguese and also a good documentarist. I also invited Dr. John Fitzpatrick, an X-ray specialist, since I knew we would probably have to rely heavily on X-rays of the bones and any ante-mortem X-rays that we could find. Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice had put together a team headed by Dr. Lowell Levine, a world-famous forensic odontologist. The two teams travelled to São Paulo, where the remains were, and were met by Brazilian pathologists and also a German team. All in all, there were perhaps as many as twenty of us. The investigation plan, which had been put together by the Brazilian police, had been for each team to examine the remains independently but we realized that as forensic scientists we had all worked together previously. It was the best team you could assemble, although no one was behaving like a star.

Can you describe the teamwork and its methodology?

We had some members with different backgrounds, but we overlapped so strongly in our knowledge that we could conduct a kind of peer review within our group—double-checking the findings and methodology of our fellow scientists. This was the beginning. We learned there that for later investigations involving large-scale situations, such as war crime cases where teams deal with hundreds or even thousands of victims, we’d need a varied group of experts and forensic scientists working together. That was one of the things we came away from the Mengele case with—a dynamic, ongoing, simultaneous, interdisciplinary approach to the problem of identification. Remember this was in 1985, pre-DNA days. Now the

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