This episode 10 of the "Just Science" podcast series funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) presents the online audio of an interview with Dr. Gwyneth Gordon of Arizona State University about her team's development of methods to use the isotopic abundance of elements in hair to learn more about the history of an individual.
This research has relevance in the identification of unidentified deceased persons, since the isotopic analysis of hair can provide information on the deceased person's diet, birthplace, and residential history. The research reported by Dr. Gordon focused on the presence and behavior of the isotopes of various substances retained by hair after death. The research team succeeded in developing methods to analyze and use the isotopic abundance of elements in hair - such as strontium, trace elements, and rare earth minerals - that might be distinctive to areas where the decedent had spent time. The research included a focus on changes in the isotopic patterns over time after death. A case study is cited by Dr. Gordon to show how isotopic analysis of elements present in the hair, tooth enamel, and bones of a deceased person can provide information on the deceased's dietary patterns, water consumption, and contacts with plants and minerals which can assist in constructing a profile of geographic areas or cultures where the deceased may have lived. Dr. Gordon notes that isotopic analysis of hair as well as bones and teeth of an unidentified deceased person is helpful when the more traditional identification methods of DNA and fingerprint analysis are not possible or require additional information.