Using bones to solve mysteries; ASU researchers at the forefront of 'biohistory'

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Researchers in an emerging field called biohistory are trying to get to the bottom of mysteries that span centuries. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Researchers in an emerging field called biohistory are trying to get to the bottom of mysteries that span centuries. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
ASU Professor Christopher Stojanowski just published a book on the topic called "Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives." (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) ASU Professor Christopher Stojanowski just published a book on the topic called "Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives." (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Stojanowski said just one tooth can reveal a lot; the individual’s sex, approximate age at death, and provide clues about their ancestry. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Stojanowski said just one tooth can reveal a lot; the individual’s sex, approximate age at death, and provide clues about their ancestry. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

It’s part CSI, part anthropology.

Researchers in an emerging field called biohistory are trying to get to the bottom of mysteries that span centuries.

What killed Mozart? Has King Richard III’s body been found?

Scientists at ASU’s Center for Bioarchaeological Research are at the forefront of the field.

ASU Regents’ Professor Jane Bukstra is credited with coining the term “biohistory” in a forensic context. ASU Professor Christopher Stojanowski just published a book on the topic called "Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives."

Put simply, biohistory is the effort to understand famous lives from biological remains.

Stojanowski got his first biohistory case in 2003 from the Catholic Church. He was asked to confirm the identity of a skull that was thought to belong to a priest under consideration for sainthood.

Stojanowski said just one tooth can reveal a lot; the individual’s sex, approximate age at death, and provide clues about their ancestry. The plaque on their teeth can be tested for isotopes that can reveal things about their diet and where they lived.

And of course, scientists can extract DNA from a tooth to compare to known relatives.

Bones can also show evidence of disease, which raises a host of ethical questions scientists are now grappling with.

“If there are descendants of that individual and people are looking at some genetic condition, there are potential privacy issues with doing that,” Stojanowski said. “There’s privacy concerns for the person. People take things to the grave. There’s some secrets they don’t want known.”

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This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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