Unearthing the Truth
Anthropologist and artist Erin Kimmerle searches for the long-forgotten so she can restore their faces and honor their stories.
By Devon Frye published July 5, 2022 - last reviewed on July 5, 2022
Erin Kimmerle often finds herself knee-deep in death. A forensic anthropologist, artist, and professor at the University of South Florida, she has spent her career searching for the graves of the missing and murdered, excavating their remains, and drawing re-creations of their faces to help authorities identify them and deliver overdue justice.
In recent years, she spearheaded the investigation into the Dozier School for Boys, a notorious former “reform school” in Florida where dozens of boys—most of them Black—died under suspicious circumstances and were buried in unmarked graves. In her book, We Carry Their Bones, she details her efforts to locate their remains despite community opposition and to provide resolution for families who had spent decades searching for their sons. She asks all of us to examine why justice is granted to some but denied to many others.
How do people react when they learn that you’ve found the remains of a missing loved one?
People go missing for different reasons, but the effect on those who love them is always the same: The grieving process is halted because they’re still looking for that person to come back alive. Even for parents whose children have been missing for 20 or 30 years, who know the truth deep down, there’s always that hope—until they’re found. Then they can start to process the death and maybe even accept it. Even in the absolute worst-case scenarios, people just want to know the truth. Otherwise, they’re stuck.
When I talk to siblings of the missing, they say that the disappearance broke their parents’ hearts; several people told me that their mom died a couple of years later. And then those siblings’ children hear about it their whole lives. It affects generations.
You worked with the U.N. to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. What lessons did you learn from that work?
Forensic anthropology can be a powerful tool for enforcing human rights—that’s what ultimately attracted me to it. Whether we’re finding mass graves, identifying individuals who are missing, or examining bones for trauma and injury, anthropology gives us a concrete way to go from grave to family to courtroom to justice. In cases of war crimes and genocide, the pattern and extent of the injury are often the most critical evidence.
Sometimes, as in the Dozier investigation, the local community vehemently opposes your work. Why?
It can come from a sense of collective responsibility. If an institution was perpetuating racist or abusive policies, and if people knew about it, then the problem is cultural—it’s systemic. Often, people don’t want to face up to that.
Communities like that can have very strong beliefs about what happened or didn’t happen; there’s often no question in residents’ minds. If they think I’m fundamentally challenging that belief system, then it doesn’t really matter how much scientific evidence I have. Their belief isn’t based on evidence; it’s based on faith.
I think it was essential in the Dozier case that our work was through my university. This kind of work requires academic freedom. Even when certain people or politicians were telling us to just let sleeping dogs lie, we could ask tough questions and be shielded from political influence.
When you find a skull whose identity is unknown, how do you begin to draw a re-creation of what the person might have looked like?
It starts with the skeletal anatomy. If the skull is broken or has injuries, we glue it back together to reconstruct it. Then we take a 3D scan of the skull. The work itself is actually drawing, using reference photos and building a composite over the skull. It’s like giving them their face back, in a way. Before, they’re usually just a number and a dusty file that no one has looked at in decades. We’re trying to bring a person out of that.
If all I have is the skull, then that’s all I have. But we try to use every piece of information we can pull together—hair, clothing, the circumstances around their disappearance. We ask for everything: newspaper articles, first responder reports, crime scene photos. When I look at the reconstructions that ended up closest, they’re usually the ones where we had that kind of contextual information that came together like a puzzle. Those little details are often so important when it comes to prompting someone to recognize the person.
How have your reconstructions helped identify unknown bodies?
We’re primarily trying to jog someone’s memory. But we’re also trying to help people connect with the justice system. Whether it’s an open homicide or a missing person, so much rests on the family keeping it going in the media and with law enforcement. If, for whatever reason, they don’t or can’t, those cases wind up at the end of the queue. Many people in the cold-case system were estranged from their families, or there might have been substance abuse or mental health issues. These people were already vulnerable or marginalized in life, and that’s often reflected in their death or how they disappeared.
But sometimes, when we put out the face of one individual, families who don’t yet have their person in the system see the image and come forward. Even if it’s not a match, seeing that face can compel them to finally file a missing person’s report or submit a DNA sample. We’ve solved a lot of cases that way.
There are thousands of unidentified bodies in the U.S. alone. How do you see forensic anthropology making a difference?
It’s a challenge. But I’m grateful for the connections I’ve made with families—some who are still searching, some who have found their person. They’ve given me so much encouragement. In the end, we approach every single case with the idea that someone is missing this individual and looking for them. All we’re trying to do is find anyone out there who knows who this person might be.