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Dr. William N. Duncan coedits text on forensic biohistory
Dr. William N. Duncan, studio portrait

JOHNSON CITY – Dr. William N. Duncan of East Tennessee State University has coedited a new textbook titled “Studies in Forensic Biohistory,” recently published by the Cambridge University Press.

Duncan, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, joined Dr. Christopher M. Stojanowski of Arizona State University in editing this text, which brings together the historic and forensic cases of notable historical figures for the first time.  “Studies in Forensic Biohistory” is No. 75 in the Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology series.

According to the editors, anthropologists and other scientists have engaged in “post-mortem dissections” of the lives of the historical figures that are a perpetual fascination in the media and popular culture, such as kings, poets, authors, criminals and celebrities.  “Biohistorians” have identified and analyzed these figures’ bodies using such technologies as DNA fingerprinting, biochemical assays and skeletal biology.

The book’s contributors examine a variety of forensic biohistorical cases at different levels of historical significance.  They examine the ethical implications of forensic biohistorical research, including what constitutes “legitimate” research, permission, and the rights and interests of the deceased.  In addition, they analyze the methods and approaches of forensic biohistory used in a number of cases.

Among the historical figures whose cases are cited in the book are King Richard III of England; Don Francisco de Paula Marín, a Spaniard who became an advisor to King Kamehameha I of the Kingdom of Hawaii around the turn of the 19th century; Robert Kennicott, a naturalist, explorer and collector who was a founding donor of the Smithsonian and who died mysteriously following the completion of an expedition to the Yukon; and the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 7-11, 1857, when about 120 emigrants traveling by wagon from the Midwest to California were murdered approximately 35 miles southwest of Cedar City, Utah. 

“My colleague and I got involved in forensic biohistory about a decade ago,” Duncan said.  “A Franciscan priest asked us to analyze a skull that was attributed to a martyred priest from Georgia in the 16th century as part of a canonization process.  This volume emerged out of our efforts on that case and our reflection about forensic biohistory in general.”

As a bioarchaeologist, Duncan studies human remains from archaeological sites, and has done extensive work on burial sites in Central America over the past two decades. 

Duncan teaches forensic anthropology, introduction to physical anthropology, human evolution, race and human variation, and other courses at ETSU.  Before joining the university’s faculty in 2009, he taught at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.  He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Stojanowski, also a bioarchaeologist, focuses on the Holocene skeletal record of the New World and Africa.  He is a professor and associate director of Undergraduate Studies in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.  He holds an M.A. from Florida State University and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.
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