Matthew Go, PhD student in Anthropology, spots it tucked into the foundation of a building on the grounds of a cemetery in Manila. An old rice sack, bulging in place and covered in dirt and grime, partially decomposing. Inside, a jumbled collection of bones showing their age and exposure to the elements.
Matt and fellow Illinois Anthropology PhD student, Amanda Lee, spent last summer in Manila creating the world’s first reference collection comprised exclusively of contemporary Filipino skeletons. Their salvage archaeology work and the new collection, housed at the University of the Philippines Diliman, may potentially help identify victims of criminal cases, mass disasters, mass fatality events, and mass graves throughout Southeast Asia.
Originally from the Philippines, Matt moved to Canada for his undergraduate degree and received Canadian citizenship while studying there. Then, he came to the U.S. to pursue his PhD in forensic anthropology under the guidance of Dr. Lyle Konigsberg, Professor and Head of the department. With the encouragement and support of the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships, Matt applied for and received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship in May of 2016. The award, one of Canada’s most prestigious, comes with four years of funding to support Matt’s graduate work in Manila.
Forensic anthropologists estimate the biological profile of unidentified skeletons, which reveals demographic details about them – sex, age at death, ancestral affiliation, and so on. Reference collections – archives of skeletons of people with known identities – help anthropologists to calibrate and verify that their profile estimations are correct. Reference collections are popping up all over the world, yet these do not cover the full range of variation that exists in the human species.
“In undergrad, I was initially interested in human bone biology, but didn’t want to study it from under a microscope at a distance. That felt detached from the real lives of people,” Matt said. “Forensic anthropology is an applied discipline. It has immediate benefits to the community that the skeleton belongs to – either to families of the missing, or to victims of crimes and disasters. The societal benefits are very proximate.”
The community Matt hopes to impact with his work is important both personally and professionally. There are currently no adequate reference libraries for Filipino skeletons and very few for Southeast Asian populations. Filipinos are a very important demographic not only in the Philippines itself, but also as prominent members of the global workforce.
“There’s less than a handful of research that’s been done in terms of Filipino skeletal variation,” Matt said. “Being Filipino, I saw a gap in our understanding that I felt I was in a very unique position to fill. That doesn’t make my work easier, but it definitely makes it more fulfilling.”
With funding from his SSHRC fellowship and the Illinois Anthropology department, Matt and Amanda were able to start the first-ever Filipino skeletal reference collection during the summer of 2016. Matt collaborated with city and cemetery administrators in Manila to recover abandoned remains that still have known identities. These remains come from “niche tombs”, part of an outdoor mausoleum. This type of burial is primarily for low-income families and the initial lease for the niche tomb is only five years long. After this time, if the next of kin does not renew the lease, the cemetery has to empty the niche tomb to make room for the next burial-in-waiting. When this happens, if the families do not claim the remains, the bones are put into the rice sacks and they are supposed to be buried in a mass grave. Because of limited resources, this rarely happens.
These bones often end up being forgotten and neglected, according to Matt. Because of the Philippines’ tropical climate, many of the bones had begun to disintegrate from exposure and lack of care by the time Matt and Amanda found, collected, and cleaned them. The most recent deaths in the collection are from 2010; the oldest is only from 1989. The longer ago since an individual has died, the less likely that their skeleton will be complete and have a tombstone with identifying information.
Matt hopes that the reference library will be invaluable in developing methods to identify remains when natural disasters strike as is inevitable in the Philippines, the most typhoon-hit country in the world.
“When a typhoon does hit, the marginalized [people] are the most susceptible to becoming a fatality. Typhoon Haiyan for example claimed more than 7,000 people in 2013, and there was very little effort to identify them because of the sheer number of people who died,” he said. “I left the Philippines when I was 17 and I’m grateful to bring my education and opportunities back with me and contribute to my home country in a meaningful way.”
Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She's currently pursuing a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university. Her research focuses on sustainable community development through tourism and in her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her husband, Adam, and their handsome dogs, Rose and Torbin.