The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Dietary isotopic analysis as an investigative tool for identifying unknown human remains in New York City


1Forensic Operations, New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, 2Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, Seton Hall University, 3Forensic Anthropology, New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, 4Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Rutgers University

April 18, 2020 3:45PM, Diamond 8-9 Add to calendar

Incorporating stable isotopic analyses into forensic biological profiles has been used to help guide investigations of unidentified human remains. Dietary isotopes (δ13C, δ15N) have been employed to indicate geographic regions and dietary trends of unidentified human remains; however, culturally influenced food traditions pose interpretative complications especially in multicultural metropolitan regions such as New York City. This study investigates the utility of and variation in δ13C and δ15N values of human bone collagen samples representing 34 forensic cases of unknown identities from the past 30 years in the custody of the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). NYC residents and the OCME cases have relatively lower δ13C and δ15N values than other US residents, indicating protein diets comprised of less animal products and less corn/sugarcane. The OCME cases have significantly higher δ13C and δ15N values than NYC residents but show comparable variances. We frame our OCME results within geolocation isotopic data from the same samples acquired from IsoForensics, Inc. and discuss various influences of dietary isotopes including geography, food traditions, health, and socioeconomic status. One identified case is explored with dietary and geolocation isotopic data given the context of the NYC residents and other OCME cases to demonstrate the utility of dietary isotopic data. This research shows the potential for integrative isotopic analyses of unidentified human remains as well as the importance of a holistic anthropological approach to interpretation of forensic casework in multicultural contexts.

Funding provided to RLQ by the National Science Foundation (NSF BCS-1455274).