Podcast S1 E8 | 30 min

How to Care for the Dead

20 Nov 2018
How long have we been burying the dead? And why is it so haunting when we can’t set those who have passed to rest?

Scientists have thought about burial—the act of interring a dead body—as a distinctly human behavior. So what happened when a group of paleoanthropologists discovered a primitive hominid that may have entombed its dead?

And how do modern-day humans respond when they are unable to find and care for the remains of their loved ones? SAPIENS host Jen Shannon talks to Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, about the 38,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. They discuss forensic scientists’ strategies in situations where missing migrants cannot be found and in cases in which remains have not yet been identified.

Paige Madison is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University where she studies the history of paleoanthropology. Her dissertation work examines the history of research on Neanderthals, Australopithecines, and Homo floresiensis. She blogs and tweets about fossils and the history of science. Follow her on Twitter @FossilHistory.

Mercedes Doretti is a forensic anthropologist who investigates human rights violations. She is a co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), where she directs the Central America, North America section. Doretti was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007 for her work with the EAAF. She completed an advanced degree (Licenciatura) in 1987 from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, and she took courses in biological anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York.

Learn more about caring for and honoring the dead at SAPIENS:

This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Arielle Milkman, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Chip Colwell, Jen Shannon, and Esteban Gómez.

SAPIENS producer Paul Karolyi, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Fact-checking is by Christine Weeber, illustration is by David Williams, and all music is composed and produced by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod.

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen Shannon: [00:00:00] Hi, listeners, this is Jen, one of the co-hosts of SAPIENS. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that violence and death are discussed in this episode. I also wanted to let you know that portions of this episode will feature people speaking in Spanish followed by interpretation in English. Thank you for listening. [00:00:17][16.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:00:21] Stanley Johnson Slesinger. Here’s an old one. Mother Ellen L. Robinson, 1832–1918. We’re standing here in Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. It’s one of Denver’s oldest burial grounds. Really, everyone who passed through the city from the late 19th century to today is entombed right here. There’s the Nisei Japanese American Memorial, for example, that pays homage to the Japanese Americans who fought in World War II while their families were forced to stay in internment camps. And right here, there is the grave of Reinhardt Shutz, the guy who actually designed the cemetery as well as a lot of other major parks in Denver. But, you know, seeing all of these graves reminds me just how important it is to care for the dead in our society. I mean, we, we spend thousands of dollars, we invest so much in places like this, and seeing how much we invest in it also makes me wonder, What happens when we can’t bury the dead? What happens when we can’t create special spaces like Fairmount Cemetery? I’m here today because I’m asking what, what does it really mean to care for those who’ve passed? But, I want to start at the beginning. Who first buried the dead? [00:01:52][90.6] 

All hosts: [00:01:55] INTRO [00:01:55][0.0] 

Paige Madison: [00:02:20] So they’re really wriggling in this dark, completely underground. I mean, they’re entirely lit by headlamps at this point. And they’re just sort of trying to map this network. And they dropped into this one chamber and found that it opened up just a little bit. It was enough to kind of stand around and walk around, and it was just littered with bones. [00:02:45][24.8] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:02:46] So Chip, what’s going on here? Who is this? Where are we? [00:02:49][3.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:02:50] So this is Paige Madison. She’s actually a historian of science at Arizona State University. [00:02:55][5.0] 

Paige Madison: [00:02:55] I specialize in paleoanthropology, the study of the deep human evolutionary past. [00:03:01][5.6] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:02] In 2013, a bunch of researchers discovered the biggest collection of hominid fossils ever in a cave in South Africa. [00:03:09][6.9] 

Paige Madison: [00:03:10] Basically, what had happened was, in this chamber, they just found this huge cache of bones, thousands and thousands of bones. And that’s really never happened in paleoanthropology. [00:03:20][10.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:03:21] Wait, were these human bones? [00:03:22][1.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:22] No, this was actually a primitive human relative called Homo naledi. [00:03:27][4.8] 

Paige Madison: [00:03:29] It did not look quite like anything anyone had ever found before. It had this mixture of modern features and also these primitive features; for example, it had a very small brain, a primitive feature, but it also had pretty advanced feet and even hands in some ways. [00:03:47][17.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:03:47] So Homo naledi had this sort of blend of old and new features? [00:03:51][3.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:52] Right. And it was this totally different branch of the human evolutionary tree, and, I mean, one we didn’t even really know about until this discovery. [00:03:59][7.4] 

Paige Madison: [00:04:00] So we know now that the Homo naledi bones are actually relatively young. They were probably deposited about 250,000 years ago. [00:04:08][8.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:08] So, by young, she really means old. Right? [00:04:11][2.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:11] OK. Well, young in the context of, like, the history of the evolution of primates. [00:04:16][5.2] 

Paige Madison: [00:04:17] So if we split from chimpanzees as, you know, maybe about 6 million years ago, 200,000 years is sort of the blink of an eye. And so, in a sort of, when we’re looking at primitive species with small brains like Homo naledi had, the assumption was that maybe these creatures were really old. [00:04:37][20.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:38] Hmm. So how do the bones get into this cave? [00:04:41][2.8] 

Paige Madison: [00:04:41] So, that’s the big question. [00:04:42][1.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:43] Exactly. That’s the big question. [00:04:44][1.6] 

Paige Madison: [00:04:45] When Homo naledi was originally announced, there were two papers that were published in the journal eLife. And one described the bones themselves, and then the other described the geology of the sort of context of this discovery. And that was where the scientists speculated a little bit about how they could have gotten in this cave, because the scientists that made the discovery, that studied the cave for some time after these cavers discovered it, they think that the way that the cavers entered is the only way that anyone could have entered the cave for the last million or so years. So there was no other entrance, they suggest, that has since been closed off. So it has always been relatively tricky to get there. So the question is, if it’s that difficult, if it requires navigating in the dark, if it requires squeezing through places, why on earth would an early hominin ever go back there? How would bodies end up there and how would so many bodies end up there? And so that became a really big debate. [00:05:52][67.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:05:53] Researchers start to think if that this cave was so hard to get to, if it was so tough to squeeze in there … [00:06:00][6.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:06:00] They must have gone in there on purpose. [00:06:01][0.9] 

Chip Colwell: [00:06:01] Exactly. [00:06:01][0.0] 

Paige Madison: [00:06:02] That is what the researchers proposed. Yes, that Homo naledi had purposefully brought bodies back to this cave chamber underground and deposited them there. And so the idea was that these small-brained, upright-walking, human species were repeatedly coming back to this underground chamber to dispose of their dead. [00:06:27][25.2] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:06:28] Wow. [00:06:28][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:06:29] Yeah. Intentional burial. [00:06:31][1.8] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:06:32] This idea of deliberately caring for the bodies of the dead, I’ve always assumed, was a pretty human thing. But now you’re telling me that an ancient primitive relative of ours buried their dead, too. [00:06:42][10.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:06:42] Right. Yeah, that’s exactly what made the Homo naledi discoveries so shocking. [00:06:47][4.4] 

Paige Madison: [00:06:48] When the announcement came out, you had this brand, new human relative that looked unlike anything we’ve ever seen and also seemed to have been conducting behaviors or, or practicing things that we thought were only modern human in nature. So we thought that only humans were complex enough to really think about death and afterlife and all these, you know, very cognitively complex ideas. And this idea that symbolic thought is unique to humans. [00:07:22][34.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:07:24] Wait, hold on there. Symbolic thought? [00:07:24][0.1] 

Paige Madison: [00:07:26] Symbolic thought meant abstract thinking. It meant that you could imagine a world beyond that which was right in front of you, so you could think about the past, you can imagine the future. It wasn’t just about, you know, seeing prey and killing it or, or you know some, some of these immediate human primate needs, but to really be able to imagine. [00:07:48][22.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:07:49] So symbolic thought, I mean, that’s mostly what we do as humans, right? Whether it’s remembering or imagining or creating—I mean, all of this involves symbolic thought, basically. I mean, that, that’s a defining feature of how we think about who we are as humans? [00:08:03][14.4] 

Paige Madison: [00:08:04] Exactly. And so that was kind of the idea is that, this is what defines us. But the problem is, if it defines us as a species, the question is, How did it arise? Because we do see it in all humans living today. So evolutionarily, it had to arise at some point. But, symbolic thought doesn’t fossilize, right. We see symbolic thought in modern human populations in the form of language or, you know, dancing rituals or art or all sorts of things, but it’s harder to see these things in the fossil record. So for a long time, anthropologists have looked to burial as one of the few things that might potentially fossilize those types of complex thinking patterns. [00:08:48][43.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:08:48] So, figuring out who first buried the dead might be key to figuring out when we first start being, human? [00:08:55][6.7] 

Paige Madison: [00:08:57] I think humans are always trying to come to terms with what I envision as a paradox, which is that humans are part of the natural world. We are primates; we did evolve. You know, we were, we are closely related to chimpanzees; we are related to other mammals, and so, in that sense, we are absolutely part of this evolutionary web on Earth. However, the paradox that I think a lot of paleoanthropologists are trying to grapple with is that humans are also unquestionably unique. I mean, you just have to look around to the cities, the lifestyles we live. You know, these complex networks that we’ve created. Criss-crossing every continent. And really diverging in some ways from our primate history. [00:09:54][57.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:09:55] So is, you know, is the search for these first burials, is it tied up with that, that drive to, to draw a boundary around us as a species? [00:10:05][10.3] 

Paige Madison: [00:10:08] Yeah, I think absolutely it is. [00:10:09][1.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:10:10] But it hasn’t always been that way. [00:10:12][1.8] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:10:13] What do you mean? [00:10:13][0.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:10:14] Well, Paige talked to me about how in different periods in history, scientists have asked different questions about what it means to be human. [00:10:21][7.3] 

Paige Madison: [00:10:21] In the 1960s, there was this general idea that humans were tool-using and maybe tool-making apes. And that was what defined us. And of course, Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees showed that that was not the case. But when Jane Goodall found evidence that chimpanzees were not only using tools but at times modifying them or making them, then her adviser, Louis Leakey, sent her a telegram as a response, saying, We either need to redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human. [00:11:00][38.6] 

Chip Colwell: [00:11:01] So do you think as, as a historian of science, it would behoove us to get away from this question altogether of what makes humans unique? [00:11:12][10.9] 

Paige Madison: [00:11:13] I think that’s a really good question. I, I would not recommend that necessarily. And there are many people that would argue with me on that. There’s something to be explained. We build these massive cities, we fly on airplanes, we, you know, have conquered all sorts of ecosystems and climates and we’ve really evolved in a way that’s just unlike any other primate. And I think one of the things that anthropologists are realizing is that human uniqueness is maybe not as simple as we thought. It maybe isn’t one thing that made humans unique and maybe didn’t happen in one moment. [00:11:49][36.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:12:05] So, does burying the dead make us human? Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that death and the rituals surrounding it play really important roles in our lives today. For example, 38,000 people have gone missing in Mexico since 2006. Some of the missing people are migrants. Others may have been disappeared by security forces or killed in cartel-related violence. None have had traditional burials. This is really a crisis for families and others who have lost loved ones. So what happens when we can’t properly say goodbye, and how do we cope when we can’t bury our dead? [00:12:44][39.4] 

Irma Cario Novares: [00:12:46] [00:12:59][13.2] [In Spanish] 

Irma Cario Novares Translator: [00:13:00] Ladies and gentlemen of the state. My name is Irma Cario Novares. I’m from Mexico, and I’m here today to talk about the loss of my sons. [00:13:07][6.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:13:09] Irma Cario Novares is testifying here at a hearing on human rights in October in Boulder, Colorado. She’s explaining how her sons disappeared while crossing the Arizona border from Mexico to the U.S. 20 years ago. And she’s asking the U.S. government to cooperate with forensic scientists who also want to know what happened to them. Even if the news isn’t good, Irma is ready to hear it. There’s nothing else that can put her mind and her grief to rest. [00:13:38][29.1] 

Irma Cario Novares: [00:13:39] [00:13:41][2.3] [In Spanish] 

Irma Cario Novares Translator: [00:13:42] I don’t expect a concrete response. [00:13:44][1.4] 

Irma Cario Novares: [00:13:44] [00:13:47][2.5] [In Spanish] 

Irma Cario Novares Translator: [00:13:48] I just want to know what happened to them. [00:13:49][1.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:13:51] Irma and other family members of missing migrants hold up big signs with pictures of their lost loved ones. The names of the missing are written underneath. The FBI is here. So is the State Department and the Border Patrol and the ambassador to the Organization of American States. The room is filled with journalists and students and activists and lawyers. They’re shuffling papers. They’re taking photos. They’re craning their necks to see better … [whispering] … It’s as if the family members are pushing back on this highly bureaucratic setting. It’s like they’re saying, I will watch this hearing, but my son, my daughter, is not a statistic. I won’t shut up and I won’t be quiet. I need to know what happened. [00:14:37][45.4] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:14:40] Good morning, commissioners and representatives of the U.S. government. [00:14:43][2.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:14:44] Mercedes Doretti is one of the forensic scientists working to identify remains of missing migrants. [00:14:48][4.4] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:14:49] Over the past decade, members of this coalition have been able to collect an exceptional amount of forensic information on missing migrants from Mexico and Central America. We’re here today because after six years of participating in meetings with U.S. officials to find ways to conduct this genetic comparison, the exchange has not taken place, and we have not found cooperation from U.S. officials to do it. [00:15:13][24.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:15:16] Mercedes understands what it means for a person like Irma to lose a loved one like this. She and her team have been working in Mexico to identify the remains of missing people since 2003. But her story about looking for the disappeared actually starts way earlier, in the 1980s, when she was a student in her hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. [00:15:36][20.3] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:15:37] I was partly in high school and then most of my university years were also during the dictatorship. It was very difficult as, as a normal citizen to live there because everything was under the control of the military. [00:15:52][14.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:15:52] On March 24, 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina. [00:15:57][4.7] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:15:58] And that installed a military government that lasted for eight years. [00:16:01][3.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:16:02] During those years, at least 10,000 people disappeared in the hands of the state. Human rights groups put the number up higher, around 30,000. Lots of people were kidnapped from their homes and secretly taken to illegal detention centers. Experts later found more than 300 clandestine detention centers all over the country … [00:16:23] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:16:24] … and one of the typical ways some of the large illegal detention centers used was sedating the prisoners and put them on airplanes and dumped them from air force airplanes into the Argentine sea. Other ways of disposing bodies was just to bury them as John and Jane Doe in cemeteries all over the country. And then a third way was to bury them in clandestine graves in the back of police prisons or military bases or other places. [00:16:52][50.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:16:56] Were these people that were identified by the state as resisting the coup or how were they identified? Why them; why were they chosen? [00:17:03][7.5] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:17:04] There were several guerrilla groups acting at the time. And that was their main excuse or their main explanation, that this was armed groups that needed to be suppressed by the government. What ended up happening is that the military junta ended up kidnapping and disappearing not only those people but also people that were, you know, friends of those people or people that were left wing or people that were sympathizers or people that defended human rights or defended union rights or, you know, it was a very widespread repression. [00:17:40][36.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:17:41] Did you know people who were kidnapped? [00:17:42][1.2] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:17:43] No one in my family disappeared or anything like that. My mother is a journalist and so we, we did know a lot of what was going on at the time, but my Mom was receiving information from the mothers and grandmothers that were looking for their, their loved ones at the time when they were being kidnapped. So, so we knew to some extent what was going on. [00:18:06][23.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:18:07] So knowing that your Mom was a journalist in connection with these groups, was there any concern in your family about her safety? [00:18:13][6.2] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:18:15] Yeah, I don’t want to make, I mean, so many people suffered so much than we did that I don’t want to make it like a big thing. But, yeah, I mean, we, several times, we considered leaving the country because she was, she was receiving a lot of death threats. Yeah. [00:18:27][12.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:18:29] Mercedes was an anthropology student at the University of Buenos Aires in 1983. She remembers being searched by military officers when she entered her school. Other students were whispering about politics, about friends or co-workers who had disappeared or left the country. Some people were able to go along with their daily work pretty normally. Others feared for their lives. But there was no organized political activity. Everything was in the hands of the military state. And then democracy returned. [00:19:02][32.3] 

Announcer: [00:19:02] *Announcements* [00:19:02][0.0] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:19:10] There was a delegation of forensic experts that came from United States that came at the request of the, at the time, truth commission. And of the Grandmothers of Plaza D’Amaggio, a nongovernmental organization that started to, in dictatorship, to look for the grandchildren that had disappeared with their parents either because they’d been kidnapped at the same time as their parents or because they were, the women were pregnant when they were kidnapped. So the truth commission that was set up by the then presidente Al Francene and the grandmothers of Plaza D’Amaggio asked the Science and Human Rights Department from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to try to help them in a number of problems. One was the recovery and identification of skeletal remains of people thought to belong to disappeared people and the other one was to find a genetic way of connecting children with the grandparents in the absence of their parents. [00:20:08][57.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:20:08] A forensic anthropologist named Clyde Snow traveled to Argentina with this delegation. He wanted anthropologists at the University of Buenos Aires to form a team to identify the dead and search for the missing. [00:20:21][12.7] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:20:22] The School of Anthropology, of graduated people, did not want to get involved; they were kind of, like, hesitant. [00:20:28][6.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:20:28] The professors at the university were scared. Plus the use of anthropology in human rights investigations was unknown at that time in Argentina. So Snow made a brilliant and unexpected move. He invited a group of anthropology students out to dinner. [00:20:44][16.0] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:20:45] And that’s how myself and my friends, that we were ending our degrees, got involved. Basically, we, we met again, just us, you know, just a group of students, and we said, Well, what, what do you do? And frankly, no one was, like, Oh yeah, let’s go and do this. We were all like, you know, Well, I guess if we want to be, you know, consistent with what we think and what we believe, we can’t say no to this. [00:21:11][25.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:21:12] Mercedes and her friends weren’t totally prepared for what came next. [00:21:15][2.8] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:21:16] Well, to begin with, there was the, the, the technical part. [00:21:18][2.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:21:19] It was one thing to dig for a skeleton that was 10,000 years old. Digging up fresh graves in cemeteries in Buenos Aires. That was completely different. [00:21:28][9.0] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:21:28] Working with the police was, was something that I discovered, it was very uncomfortable at the time because there hasn’t been any cleaning of the police forces at the time. So being on a police car or things like that, it was, it was too close to dictatorship, it was just a month old, you know, the democracy, and the police was, were making jokes and doing threats or saying, well, if we would have done their work properly, these people would not be here digging. [00:21:58][29.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:21:59] Because Mercedes was working with law enforcement at that time, she had to figure out how to act normal around people she totally distrusted. [00:22:06][7.5] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:22:07] Because, essentially, we would not see them as someone who will take care of you or someone that can protect you. Right, the opposite. So that was one thing that was, you know, that it took a while to get used to it and so on. And then the other part was the contact with the families, which for us it was like a whole breaking through in how to do our work; we learned how to, how important it was to have a very direct communication with them, to keep them informed, to keep their expectation at the level that was possible, that no matter how good you could be technically, if you did not have the trust of them, if you were not communicating with them in the right way and so on, your work may fail in the sense of providing solace to, to these families. [00:22:56][48.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:22:58] Mercedes and other students formed a group called the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. They have now been consulting on human rights cases, identifying the dead, figuring out what happened, for 35 years. [00:23:10][12.0] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:23:11] The team by now have been working in more than 50 countries in different parts of the world, different continents and different cultures, different religions and, of course, there are differences between, between them. But at the same time, one of the things that is a similarity is this need of knowing what happened with the remains of their loved ones. [00:23:32][21.1] 

Irma Cario Novares: [00:23:35] Yo vengo este día a pedir que ya he esperado mucho, que cada minuto, cada hora que ustedes tomen en hacer una decisión que pueda cambiar nuestro sufrimiento, eso está restando mi vida.[00:23:51][15.6] 

Irma Cario Novares Translator: [00:23:51] I’m coming here to ask today—because I’ve already waited a lot. Every minute, every hour that you all take to make a decision that can change our suffering—it’s consuming my life.[00:24:04][13.1] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:24:06] That is what, it’s really, you know, so horrible and so difficult to go on with the rest of your life because you’re constantly thinking, Is there something else I can do? [00:24:17][11.3] 

Irma Cario Novares: [00:24:17] Tengo a mi nieto también, César Galvez, y lo que más deseo es contestar a la pregunta que siempre me decía — mamá donde está mi mama, dime. Sabes y no medices. Entonces en este momento yo quiero pedir y quiero mostrar, se que no puedo mostrar con palabras mi dolor porque es muy grande pero quiero enseñarles un corazón. Éste es un corazón que está sangrando desde hace casi veinte años y estoy muriendo lentamente en un agonía. [00:24:49][31.8] 

Irma Cario Novares Translator: [00:24:50] I have my grandson too, César Galvez. And what I most want is to answer the question that he’s always asked me—Grandma, where is my Dad, tell me. You know, and you won’t tell me. Today, I can’t show you my pain with words. It’s too big. But I want to show you my heart. This is a heart that has been bleeding for 20 years, and I’m slowly dying in agony.[00:25:18][28.5] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:25:19] This is such a, a horrible and horrific situation that, you know, in international law, it’s been considered now torture that the relatives of disappeared people are considered victims of tortured because of that. I think there is pain for the rest of your life for the ones who survive it. But it’s a different thing when you do have a burial place, when you know what happened, when you can put flowers in a specific place. You see the families, how they change after a year or two years, that they have recovered the remains. They can start caring about other things in life including the rest of the family, ’cause often what happens is that the other members of the family are, everybody is, you know, dedicated to find this one that have disappeared. Right. And so it affects the lives of, of all of them. Right. So you see an enormous difference when, when they finally know what happened. [00:26:19][59.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:26:20] So I think a lot of us can understand, maybe what grief is in our personal lives, but I’m wondering, as someone who’s worked with and seen so many grieving families, what have you come to learn or understand about the process of grief? [00:26:36][15.8] 

Mercedes Doretti: [00:26:37] What you learn is also that the families cannot decide by themselves, OK, from now on I’m not going to look for him or for her anymore. I’m gonna decide myself that my daughter or my son is dead. You can’t do that. You know, they, they tell you, We will feel as if we’re abandoning them, you know, as if we’re killing them twice, right, or making them disappear again. What they always say is, We need a confirmation that it’s not from us, that it’s coming from some kind of official truth or some kind of official information so they can really accept it. [00:27:15][37.6] 

Chip Colwell: [00:27:22] Jen, thanks so much for sharing this story. I mean, it’s haunting. So do you know what came of the Human Rights Commission hearing we heard earlier? [00:27:30][8.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:27:30] Yeah, well, Mercedes, Irma, and others are really wanting the U.S. government to take the DNA samples they have and match it to the FBI database. [00:27:38][8.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:27:40] Tell me more what that means. [00:27:41][0.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:27:42] Well, Mercedes’ team and other human rights forensics groups, they’ve actually gathered over 4,000 DNA samples from families in Mexico and Central America who really just want to know what happened to their loved ones. And they believe that, you know, the U.S. can actually help answer these questions if they’ll just compare these DNA samples to the FBI database. [00:28:03][21.5] 

Chip Colwell: [00:28:04] Wow. So together, these two databases could contain, like, so many clues for people like Irma. [00:28:11][7.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:28:12] Yeah, like Mercedes said, it would really help them begin to heal. [00:28:15][3.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:28:16] So, what’s stopping them? [00:28:17][1.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:28:18] Well, because of a whole bunch of complicated legalities, the FBI won’t run the comparison. [00:28:22][4.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:28:24] So where do things stand now, then? [00:28:25][1.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:28:26] Mercedes and her team are still waiting for a response from the government. And Irma is still looking for her sons. [00:28:29][2.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:28:44] This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Arielle Milkman, edited and sound designed by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by myself (Jen), Chip Colwell, and Esteban Gómez. SAPIENS producer Paul Karolyi, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek also provided additional support. Christine Weeber is our fact-checker, and our cover art was created by David Williams. Music for this episode is by Matthew Simonson. Thanks this time to our guests Paige Madison and Mercedes Doretti. Thanks also to Irma and members of the Forensic Border Coalition. Vanessa Valerio interpreted the Spanish in the episode. Thanks to the Argentine historic archive of radio and television for the footage of Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983. Thanks to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for audio of their October hearing in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks also to Danilyn Rutherford; Maugha Kenny; the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation; and Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Aaron Brooks, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association’s Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. See you around, fellow sapiens. [00:28:52][0.0]


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