New research out of Nova Scotia aims to put a face and name to the unidentified remains of aboriginal people found across Canada by investigating a long overlooked area of forensic research.
When human remains are found in the province, Tanya Peckmann, a forensic anthropologist at Saint Mary's University, often gets called to the scene. She and her team remove the bones, figure out age, ethnic background and other markers — all information that is turned over to police who begin the search for identify.
But when years pass and all avenues of identification fail, investigators sometimes turn to the painstaking process of making a 3D facial reconstruction.
When the clay head is made public, it's hoped someone will recognize the dead.
One of the most important things to understand in the process is tissue depth, which varies with age, but also with ethnic background.
The problem is that while there's a great deal of tissue data for people of white European, African and Hispanic descent, none exists for Canadian aboriginals.
"That person is not going to look like they did during life, because you're using tissue depths that aren't representative of that population," Peckmann says.
"And the whole point of this process is to identify these people and give them a name and give them back to their family members and let the family be able to know what happened to them."
For instance, when the remains of an aboriginal women were found in 1992 near the St. John River in New Brunswick, an RCMP forensic specialist carefully crafted a facial reconstruction.
But with no data on tissue depth for aboriginal people, the specialist had to use what he knew about Caucasian skin.
Essentially it came down to guess work.
It took more than a decade to finally identity Donna Joe, originally from Burnt Church, N.B.
When a 1984 photo of her finally emerged, it was clear the forensic reconstruction had depicted a slimmer face than Joe's when she was alive.
But now, after several years of research, sponsored in part by RCMP, scientists have analyzed tissue depth of 152 Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia.
A portable ultrasound was used to measure tissue thickness at 19 points on each volunteer, most of them from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.
The result: the first database of aboriginal tissue depth in Canada, which shows Mi'kmaq people have more tissue depth in their cheeks, noses and chins.
Part of the impetus for the research is the high number of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.
600 unidentified remains
There are roughly 600 unidentified remains across Canada, some of them aboriginal. The president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association says she hopes the new research will help identify those unsolved cases.
"When we see scientists and researchers looking at things that will help us deal with the problem of missing, murdered women, it has to be commended and applauded," says Cheryl Maloney.
"And the fact that they spent this much time on Mi'kmaq, and the research on the Mi'kmaq people and their distinct characteristics is wonderful. I think it's long overdue."
But it doesn't mean there's not doubters. Peckmann says one anonymous academic who reviewed the study before publication questioned what the point of the was.
"It just blew me away that somebody would say, 'What does it matter?'" Peckmann says. "But again it brings it back almost to the the way that aboriginal people are probably viewed."