SAN MARCOS, Texas – When a body that has decomposed down to the bones is found, it is most likely going to be sent to the Texas State University Forensic Anthropology Center, where researchers study human remains.
There are only about a dozen schools across the country that specialize in this type of research, and Texas State University's program is the only one in the state.
“So this is a complete skeleton here,” Dr. Daniel Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center, said, pointing to remains.
Wescott, who has been in the field for 20 years, knows his bones.
“You see that's a male, so you have that larger area here," he said, pointing to a skull's frontal area.
The Forensic Anthropology Center focuses on studying human remains, particularly the human skeleton and how it decomposes. Since it's the only place in Texas that does this kind of research, it is the go-to place for law enforcement departments across the state.
The center handles anywhere between 100 and 120 cases a year — from working with local law enforcement agencies when they need help identifying a body to helping identify remains of those who attempted to cross the border and died during the journey.
“Typically, we would go out to the scene where the body was found and look at it,” Wescott said.
Wescott said the Forensic Anthropology Center gets about 60 to 70 cases involving undocumented immigrants on the border, 12 human remain cases around Texas and about 30 cases where it’s unclear whether remains belong to an animal or a human every year.
The center does more than just identify bodies. On campus, there is a decomposition farm where students study donated bodies as they decompose and use the skeletal remains for research.
The farm gets about 60 to 70 bodies donated a year.
“We go through and do a biological profile, which is usually associated with figuring out the age, sex, how tall they were and if they have any unique features,” Wescott said.
Wescott said skeletons can also act as fingerprints.
“Everybody's pretty unique,” he said.
And with every box of remains the center gets, he said, the goal is to find out as much as they can about the person.
“You never lose that perspective that this is a human that was walking around not too long ago that I may even had met," Wescott said.