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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Archaeology of the Desaparecidos

Christina Bellelli and Jeffrey Tobin


May 1985. In the grand courthouse of Buenos Aires the three military juntas that had written the most tragic chapter in the history of Argentina were put on trial by the recently restored democratic government. Photographs of human bones were projected onto the screen installed in the courtroom. The witness who explained the significance of the photos was Clyde Snow, a North American forensic anthropologist. The bones were the remains of desaparecidos: people who had been "disappeared" during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. As Ernesto Sábato--the director of Argentina's National Commission on the Disappearance of People--noted, it is the "sad privilege" of Argentina to have invented desaparecido, a word that has passed untranslated into languages around the world. In Argentina there are approximately 30,000 such cases: people who were kidnapped by paramilitary squads, were held and tortured in clandestine concentration camps, were murdered, and were disposed of in unmarked graves or in the murky waters of the Río de la Plata. The bones that Snow presented to the court were disinterred with modern archaeological techniques from mass burial sites in which the state-sponsored assassins had hidden them. The meticulous gathering of this tragic archaeological "evidence" and its subsequent forensic anthropological analysis made it possible to reverse some of the process of disappearance by confirming who some of the individual victims were and how they died.

December 1995. In an old apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, a spotlight illuminates a large photograph showing a group of smiling, vital students hugging Snow. Beneath the photograph, four of the young scientists who appear in it sit and discuss their work. These were some of the students of anthropology and medicine who participated in a course given by Snow and other forensic anthropologists in Argentina in 1985. The purpose of the course was to prepare a local group of scientists for the profound task of identifying the remains that were then beginning to appear in individual and collective graves all over Argentina. That course laid the foundation for the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF--Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team), which in Snow's words is "the most experienced team in the world, having made more exhumations and having examined more human remains than specialists from anywhere else."

Forensic anthropology is primarily a specialty within physical anthropology, the branch of anthropology that contributes the techniques that make it possible to identify the person to whom specific remains belong. Thus, the EAAF includes physical anthropologists among its members, but it also counts on the participation of archaeologists. Archaeological techniques are required to "recover evidence" (that is to say, to exhume bodies), but unlike traditional archaeologists and physical anthropologists, EAAF researchers depend on information about the bodily histories of the individuals whose remains they disinter. As EAAF members Anahí Ginarte and Darío Olmo explain, "In the rest of the world there are many people who do this sort of work, but one of the peculiarities of the EAAF is that we are the only group in the world that brings together all the necessary professionals in the same team. Also, unlike other groups, we do an investigation prior to the disinterment." Thus, members of the EAAF interview the relatives, fellow captives, doctors, and dentists of desaparecidos to compile a database pertaining to the age, sex, height, build, childbearing history, and pathologies of the individuals whose remains they believe may be at a specific site.

Patricia Bernardi and Luis Fondebrider were anthropology students in 1985. They explain that Argentine judges had to be convinced of the merits of archaeology. "At first it was difficult to make the courts understand that it was necessary to change the job of exhuming the bodies from shoveling or even bulldozing the graves to using quadrants, survey equipment, and brushes, and that it was necessary to plot the site and to label each specimen." Bernardi and Fondebrider became permanent members of the EAAF in 1986. Since then they have helped to shed light on many court cases. They have worked as technical collaborators and as expert witnesses at the request of the judiciary, of human rights organizations, and of victims' families. In nine years of work in Argentina they have participated in over 500 disinterments. In 90% of these cases they determined that the cause of death was a bullet wound to the head and that the bullet entered from the back and went out the front.

One of the EAAF's most important efforts has been at the cemetery in Avellaneda, an industrial city near Buenos Aires. In a 300 m2 area, cemetery and police records indicate there may be as many as 19 common graves, each containing between nine and 28 corpses and 18 individual graves. The EAAF began its work at Avellaneda in 1986 and finished major work there in March 1992 having recovered 342 bodies. The excavation at Avellaneda is the first archaeological excavation of a mass grave site (excluding the nonarchaeological disinterments performed in Germany). Thus, the EAAF is, of necessity, a pioneer in the development of techniques suitable to this sort of task. For security reasons, the team focused their efforts on recovering all of the bodies buried there before proceeding to the task of identification. However, very unusual osteological characteristics, combined with very clear information from the families concerned led to the identification and return of eight bodies to families for reburial. The team members have written Tumbas anónimas: Informe de la represión ilegal en Argentina (Anonymous Graves: Report on Illegal Repression in Argentina), a book in which they share the experiences they accumulated in the course of this impressive investigation.

In addition to Ginarte, Olmo, Bernardi, and Fondebrider (all of whom are anthropologists), the team includes Mercedes Doretti and Silvana Turner (also in anthropology), Alejandro Incháurregui (medicine), Carlos Somigliana (law), and Daniel Bustamante and Rafael Mazella (computer science).

Because of parallels in the recent histories of military dictatorships throughout Latin America, the expertise of the EAAF is valued beyond the borders of Argentina. Since 1986 the EAAF has participated in disinterments and osteological analyses all over the region at the request of human rights organizations and courts. For example, in Chile it was called in to examine a collective tomb, which was thought to contain victims of the Pinochet dictatorship. The EAAF determined that the burial site contained the remains of between 19 and 30 individuals belonging to a local indigenous population dating to prehistoric or early historic times. At the outset of this work, team members offered a course designed to train Chilean professionals in forensic anthropology so that they could carry on the search for their own desaparecidos. The EAAF has given such courses in most of the countries of Latin America and in the Philippines. The team has also collaborated with Snow and others on excavations and identifications in the United States, Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, the Philippines, Kurdistan, Ethiopia, Romania, and Croatia. Currently, EAAF members are collaborating with Cuban specialists in the disinterment of the remains of Che Guevara in Bolivia. As foreigners in these countries, members of the EAAF has been able to maintain their independence, performing disinterments and providing identifications and expert testimony that would not otherwise be possible. Local forensic specialists invariably are employed by the judiciary, the police, or state universities, and thus can be subject to external pressures. However, one external pressure that EAAF member share with local forensic specialists is placing their lives in danger. For example, threats from paramilitary groups forced the EAAF to abandon its work in Guatemala, examining bones from a 30-year-old civil war.

Christina Bellelli is a researcher at Argentina's National Council of Science and Technology (CONICET) and Argentina's National Institute of Anthropology, and she teaches method in archaeological research at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and at the Universidad de Salta (Argentina). Jeffrey Tobin is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Rice University. He is conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Buenos Aires.


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