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Anthropology Professor Dawnie Steadman gets tired of the misperceptions.

“For my field, forensics, Bones is how everybody knows things,” she says. “Of course, any time you see something on TV about what you do, you cringe.” But for a forensic anthropologist routinely called by investigators to help recover and identify human remains and testify at trials, it’s the misrepresentations that are especially troublesome. “You go in front of a jury and they expect you to be able to do magical things. They call it the CSI effect. If you don’t bring in DNA evidence to a trial, even if it’s completely unnecessary, the jury looks unfavorably on a prosecution. It’s crazy, but in every CSI episode, they can get DNA in 20 minutes.”

Regularly working with Iowa State Police, New York State Police and two jurisdictions on Long Island, Steadman refuses to talk about the specifics of any case out of respect for the victims and their families.

“I enjoy helping the families find out what happened to their loved ones,” she says. “It’s not just making a historical record of what happened, but using that historical record to further the justice system.”

She carries the same sensitivity into her human-rights work, where she has collaborated with teams in Argentina, Cyprus and Spain to uncover mass graves, and help bring closure to families while possibly providing evidence to prosecute war criminals.

Human rights investigations reveal there is a pattern that leads to mass killings in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which she uses to say to policy makers, “Look, when we see this cascade of events, we need to pay attention earlier so we don’t repeat these things.”

“We’re not very good at that,” she says. “I hate to use the word ‘advocate,’ but that’s what it is, advocating for trying to stop it from happening in the present.”

Steadman also looks much further back in time, and her study of conflicts in the past challenges some basic tenets of bioanthropology, which typically attributes all large trends toward bad health to changes in diet. But she’s shown that behavioral changes are just as important.

In one region in Tennessee, she and her colleagues have found that, during war, people moved settlements to more protected positions, sacrificing good farmland for defensibility. It’s a new way to understand how cultural processes affect biology and vice-versa.

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Last Updated: 12/20/10