Unearthing Mysteries of the Human Experience

Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 7:47 am

Unearthing Mysteries of the Human Experience

"Laying the Dead to Rest: Meeting Forensic Anthropologist Mercedes Doretti"I’m often asked about our process for choosing people and topics. The answer goes something like this. We are always juggling a number of priorities — responding to what is happening in the world; getting to subjects of enduring interest that we feel we can draw out in a distinctive way; bringing important voices on to the show, some of them famous, but more often people who, though captivating and wise, remain below the radar of headlines and hype. Their names find their way to a long list of possible guests that we add to all the time, either from our own reading and conversations or from the many ideas our listeners send in.
At some point, our online editor surfaced Mercedes Doretti’s name, which landed on that long list. She is a leading force in the field of global forensic anthropology and winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” though she is not by far a household name. We knew that she works at a deeply human level on atrocities that usually come to us by way of gruesome news stories — the kind that leave me, at least, more despairing than reflective.
Doretti grew up, in fact, in one of these “stories” — the period of Argentina’s so-called “dirty war.” The military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 maintained control by terrorizing its own citizens. Over 10,000 people, many of them young, were “disappeared” — kidnapped, tortured, and killed. For their families they were, from one day to the next, simply gone without a trace. Some of their bodies were dropped into the ocean. Others were buried in unmarked graves.
As the “dirty war” ended, at the invitation of a group of grandmothers who stubbornly sought to know what had happened to their children and their children’s children, an American forensic anthropologist named Clyde Snow came to Argentina. He is the world expert in a field called osteobiography, which I found evocatively described as “the art and science of reading a person’s life story from their bones.” He would shape the course of Mercedes Doretti’s life.
Under Clyde Snow’s mentorship, she and a group of other anthropology students went in search of the bodies, and the stories, of the grandmothers’ lost loved ones. They became experts in all the forensic sciences — including genetics, ballistics, osteology, and radiology. They became archeologists of political crimes — archeologists not of ancient history but of the contemporary past. And over the past three decades, they’ve taken this work to over 30 countries — from El Salvador to Bosnia, from East Timor to Ethiopia — places where civilians have been caught in civil unrest, often kidnapped and murdered by their own governments.
Mercedes Doretti illuminates a rich, human, global landscape that gives me a sense of the nature of real-world forensics and archeology that I could never gain from CSI or Indiana Jones. Unlike those news stories I can barely read to the end, I am riveted and comforted by Mercedes Doretti’s presence. She is a scientist through and through — she loves solving the puzzles that bones hold as much as she loves the fact that this labor of hers becomes a crucial form of reparation for the living. She is not a religious person, but she has much to teach about some enduring, mysterious human experience with profound religious implications — our need to bury our dead, to reconcile ourselves to terrible events, to find justice on many levels.
The poetry of Alicia Partnoy seemed to us a necessary and beautiful complement to Mercedes Doretti’s insights. Partnoy was one of the few who survived her detention in a secret prison during the “dirty war.” Her poems, and the experiences of suffering and life chosen beyond it that comes through Partnoy’s voice alone, are also a testament to the mysterious vigor and transcendence of the human spirit. “Laying the Dead to Rest” makes my world a bit bigger. It adds both a knowledge of science and of a redemptive softness at some of the world’s most treacherous edges.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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