Q&A: Forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor investigates WA bones, mysteries

Kathy Taylor’s business is bones.

As a forensic anthropologist, she spends her time reading personal details imprinted on skeletal remains.

Taylor can tell if her “patients” had diseases, suffered major injuries or were the victim of abuse. She can determine gender, age, height and ancestry.

It’s not uncommon to find her overseeing an exhumation. She’s the go-to person when Washington State law enforcement officers want to know if recently uprooted bones are human or animal – her phone is often bombarded with bizarre photographs.

Taylor is employed by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office but is contracted to all 39 counties in the state and occasionally helps with investigations in Alaska.

She recently inspected the remains of a man found dead in 1989 above the Carbon River who was exhumed from the Sumner Cemetery. He was buried as a John Doe; Taylor is part of a team hoping to identify the man by studying his bones and possibly using his skeleton to do a facial reconstruction.

Question: Explain your job – what does a forensic anthropologist do and what is your average day like?

Answer: Forensic anthropology is an expertise in skeletal anatomy and human variation. For example, we look at how the skeleton of a male is different from a female. We take that knowledge and apply it to a medicolegal death investigation. I don’t have a typical day. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I clock in at work every morning.

Q: How did you get into this field?

A: I took my first anthropology class as a sophomore and became fascinated in what you could tell from bones. I’ve always been a deductive thinker, and it was just sort of a really good match for me. I also grew up here in Washington and was in high school during the Green River killings. That case really spurred my interest in forensic anthropology. The irony is when they started finding victims in 2003, I worked those cases.

Q: What other big cases have you worked on?

A: I consider every case a big case. Every case is somebody’s loved one. The one thing you learn in this job is everybody is loved by somebody.

Q: I know law enforcement often sends pictures of bones to your cellphone so you can distinguish if they’re animal or human. Tell me about that.

A: I always joke that my expertise is people or nonpeople. Don’t ask me if it’s from an elk or dog; I only know that it’s nonhuman.

Q: What do you see when you look at bones?

A: The skeleton is an amazing thing. It really records a lot of the events of your life, like if you broke bones or you have diseases. If you think of bone as having a scaffolding in it, that scaffolding pattern is unique to you.

Q: Can you walk me through the process to determine age, gender and race from skeletal remains?

A: Children’s skeletons look the same because all characteristics we see in the bone come in at puberty.

In adults, females are the more delicate of the sexes. Men are more robust. We look at what bones are still growing, dental development and wear and tear. The fourth rib and pelvis tell you a lot.

With ancestry, we need a skull. What we’re doing is looking at differences in the shape of the head, differences in the shape of the nose, differences in how prominent cheekbones are.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: If I have an unidentified, my ability to identify them is only as good as the information that’s out there. That’s a huge frustration and very challenging. I’ve been a huge advocate for getting missing people into the system and that means empowering the families of missing people and getting law enforcement to take those reports.