John AlbaneseForensic anthropologist John Albanese, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, has received a federal grant to travel to Brazil in the fall to resume research and teaching at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Anthropology professor to help train forensic scientists in Brazil

Canada is sending a UWindsor professor to Brazil to help forensic scientists there identify the remains of people murdered during the country’s dictatorship.

Forensic anthropologist John Albanese will be visiting the Laboratory of Archaeological Studies at the Federal University of São Paulo this fall to resume work on projects interrupted by pandemic travel restrictions. He will be conducting research, giving lectures, leading workshops, and building partnerships for future collaborations. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada is covering the cost of his travel — $3,500.

“I’ve been working with colleagues in Brazil since early 2017,” Dr. Albanese said. “Having non-Brazilians participate in investigations contributes to the real and perceived sense of transparency and legitimacy of investigations.”

During Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship that ended in 1985, Indigenous people were murdered for their land and political activists disappeared, their remains later discovered in mass graves. In the cases where government officials documented deaths, they falsified causes of death and buried victims under pseudonyms.

“Forensic science in Brazil is undergoing a major transformation as the country comes to terms with its human rights violations,” Albanese said. “Similarly in Canada, advocates, researchers, and forensic scientists, myself included, have been focusing on the thousands of unmarked graves of children located at over 100 Indian residential schools.”

Albanese said forensic scientists in Canada and Brazil can help each other with projects aimed at the identification and repatriation of remains by setting up methodologically sound and ethical protocols.

In Canada, Albanese has been working with the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, assisting with the cemeteries at the site of the former Brandon Residential School in Manitoba. The Brandon Indian Residential School, as it was known during Canada’s forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples, operated between 1895 and 1972.

In a separate project in 2014, he helped repatriate ancestral remains to the Walpole Island First Nation. The skeletal remains had been in the University’s possession, exhumed by students in the 1970s as part of a field course.

In Brazil, Albanese will be a guest lecturer for a course led by Claudia Pens taken primarily by forensic pathologists, forensic dentists, and other post-graduate professionals on his methods for identifying remains, specifically how to ascertain the biological sex and physical stature. He will also hold special workshops and lectures for undergraduate and graduate students.

The university in São Paulo has established a new collection of skeletal remains. Albanese explained that since Brazil does not have a tradition of perpetual care in cemeteries, bodies are often exhumed after five years and the families will donate their loved ones’ remains to science. Albanese will use this reference collection in his workshops and study the bones to validate his research methods.

Albanese said he will not only be training the next generation of human rights investigators, he hopes to gain insight that can assist his and other researchers’ work at the sites of former residential schools in Canada.

“Dr. Plens is a leader in establishing national standards for forensic anthropology with a focus on the investigation of human rights violations, he said. “I see this as an opportunity for forensic scientists in Canada and Brazil to help each other.”

—Sarah Sacheli