Anthropology professor, ace investigator

By Scott Chittock II

Loren Lease, associate professor and acting chair of humanities and social sciences at Youngstown State University, uses her skills in anthropology to examine skeletal remains found during police investigations such as missing persons cases.

The Youngstown Police Department and the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office contact Lease when they have skeletal remains and need help determining if the remains come from a human or an animal.

Lease then provides a biological profile of the remains to try to learn more about who the person was.

“When you’re talking about the skeleton — it doesn’t give you a definitive description,” Lease said. “A biological profile is not a positive ID. What it is, is a presumptive or a set of variables that you use to narrow down the missing persons’ list.”

Lease said the profiles can reveal information such as biological age, stature, pathology and trauma. Any information revealed can then be used with data the police already have. This can help police identify the remains of missing persons who were never found.

Depending on what actually remains of the skeleton, there may be limitations on what information can be learned from a profile.

“In some cases, all you may have is a skull, and so you can only do things such as tentative estimations of sex and ancestry, perhaps age,” Lease said. “You can’t do anything in stature. You can’t talk about pathology or trauma because all of the postcranial, all — everything from the neck down — is gone.”

Lease said she’s fortunate to have a skill set that can help in such situations, and it’s important to help in any way she can. If Lease didn’t volunteer to help, the remains would need to be sent out of the area for examination — which would cost money and take more time.

“It’s important to families and friends to have their loved ones identified,” Lease said. “No one should go through their life not knowing what happened to their loved one.”

Last year, Lease received national recognition for helping police identify the skeletal remains of a local woman who’d been missing since 2017.

Lease is able to volunteer with these cases because of her specialization in forensic anthropology and skeletal biology. Although her branch of anthropology focuses on skeletons, she said there’s much more to anthropology than examining skeletons.

“I only work in the biological anthropology [field]. In fact, I only work in a small segment of the biological anthropology field,” Lease said.

Lease explained that anthropology is a broad field that covers evolutionary history, human interaction with the environment, diet, culture and more.

“Anthropology is the study of humans over time — you know, from 65 million years ago if you’re looking at primates and our closest non-human relatives,” Lease said. “Anthropology covers humans. We study humans in all manners.”

Before getting into anthropology, Lease majored in art history as an undergraduate student. Lease said after taking a few classes related to anthropology, such as human origins and archaeology, she discovered she loved it.

“It both answered and opened up the world to me,” Lease said.