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Stable Isotope Forensics & Unknown Persons - Archival
This webinar discussed applications of stable isotope analysis for predicting region of origin of unidentified border crossers found within the United States. Participants will understand the applications and limitations of stable isotope analysis.
Live Webinar was held on May 24th, 2017

This webinar highlighted the application of stable isotope analysis in predicting the region of origin of unidentified border crossers (UBCs) found deceased within the United States. Recent applications of stable isotope forensics for provenancing human remains address several challenges and limitations, and present some guidelines for future research. Over the past decade, the use of stable isotope analysis has become an increasingly important part of forensic casework. It has been applied to unidentified human remains cases from local jurisdictions, past wars and conflicts, victims of genocide, and undocumented border crossers. These applications have been successful due to the recent development of baseline water and geological ‘isoscape’ maps for various regions, as well as defining regional and cultural variation in human diets. Collaborations between forensic anthropologists and analytical chemists have provided new opportunities to develop and test new methods by evaluating samples of known origin. 

Recently implemented U.S. border polices have resulted in a dramatic increase in undocumented border crosser deaths, especially along the Arizona-Mexico and Texas-Mexico borders. Since 1999, there have been more than 6,000 migrant deaths along the border, representing Mexican, Central American, and South American nationals. The large volume of UBC casework has created an unprecedented human identification challenge, especially given the lack of personal documentation, antemortem records, and DNA family reference samples for these individuals. The majority of migrant deaths over the last decade have occurred along the Arizona-Mexico border, specifically in the Tuscan Sector. This has led to the implementation of increased border security measures in this region. Rather than deterring migrant crossings this has resulted in a dramatic increase of migrant deaths in southern Texas since 2010. For example, between 2011 and 2012, Texas has experienced a 70 percent increase in migrant deaths. 

In 2013, the University of Indianapolis and Baylor University began a large scale effort to exhume and identify deceased border crossers buried in Falfurrias, Texas. This area within Brooks County, located approximately 80 miles from the Texas/Mexico border, is along a major migration route for UBCs; however, in order to avoid immigration checkpoints, many migrants walk several miles off track and perish from the long-term effects of sun exposure and dehydration. Over the past several years, deceased border crossers have been buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery, in Falfurrias, with little effort made toward identification and repatriation. Collaborative work between the University of Indianapolis, Baylor University, and Texas State University, San Marcos has resulted in a concerted effort to identify these deceased migrants and to repatriate them to family members. The migrant remains are currently held at Texas State University for skeletal processing, DNA and stable isotope sampling, and temporary curation.

The Humanitarian and Human Rights Resource Center (HHRRC) of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) promotes the application of contemporary forensic science and forensic medicine principles to global humanitarian and/or human rights projects requiring special forensic assistance. The projects in this Webinars Series with the FTCoE are those selected for support by the International Advisory Council of the HHRRC.

This webinar was recorded in its entirety at the time of the Live event in order to capture the one on one interaction with the presenter. Funding for this Forensic Technology Center of Excellence event has been provided by the National Institute of Justice.


Dr. Eric Bartelink
Professor of physical anthropology and the director of the Human Identification Laboratory and the Stable Isotope Preparation Laboratory at California State University, Chico. He serves as the president of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, as an instructor for California Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST), and as a member of Team California for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.