A few days ago an article that I co-authored with three other researchers from the University of Michigan finally went live online. This foray into forensic taphonomy was part of a larger project run by Jason De León called the Undocumented Migration Project, or UMP. The UMP uses a suite of archaeological, ethnographic and forensic approaches to better understand the broad-scale implications of the undocumented migration process along the southwestern border of the United State. To borrow from the far better articulated description on the UMP website:
“Started in 2009, the Undocumented Migration Project [UMP] is a long-term anthropological analysis of clandestine border crossings between Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona…The UMP uses a combination of ethnographic and archaeological approaches to understand various aspects of unauthorized border crossings including the many forms of violence and suffering that characterize the process, the distinct experiences of migrant sub-populations (e.g., women, children, LGBT, non-Mexican nationals), and the evolving material culture associated with crossing. By combining ethnographic work in Mexico with archaeological research in Arizona, the UMP has improved our knowledge of this highly politicized and poorly understood process and demonstrated how an archaeological approach can provide new insight into a contemporary social phenomenon.”
I’ve also written about the larger importance of the Undocumented Migration Project in a previous post.
The paper itself focuses on the first season of forensic taphonomic research at UMP. Our project is trying to better understand what happens to human bodies that are abandoned in the Sonoran Desert during the process of border crossing, which has been the fate of more than 5500 people in the past 16 years. We used pigs as proxies for human bodies (a customary practice in forensic research), and carefully documented the taphonomic factors (e.g. animal activity, temperature) that affected the process of decomposition and dispersal of remains and artifacts. The first field season demonstrated the extent to which animal activity affects bodies that are left out in open desert conditions, identified some of the most active members of the Arizona desert scavenging guild, and drew important conclusions about logistical considerations like search radii and the distance animals can move personal effects.
This research is particularly important given the continuing debates about immigration policies and the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy in the United States. Last summer a second round of taphonomic experiments took place, and combined results from both seasons are due to be presented by Kate Hall at a session of the Society for Historical Archaeology in January 2015.
The article can be cited as:
Beck, J., Ostericher, I., Sollish, G. and De León, J. (2014), Animal Scavenging and Scattering and the Implications for Documenting the Deaths of Undocumented Border Crossers in the Sonoran Desert,. Journal of Forensic Sciences. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.12597
and early view can also be accessed online at the Journal of Forensic Sciences.