The Norman Transcript

Local news

May 18, 2014

Renowned anthropologist Clyde Snow dies at 86

NORMAN — Clyde Collins Snow liked to say that bones made good witnesses: They never lie, never forget, and that a skeleton — no matter how old — could sketch the tale of a human life.

The well known U.S. forensic anthropologist passed away Friday at the age of 86 from cancer and emphysema at Norman Regional Hospital, and his own skeleton tells the tale of a life worth living.

Dr. Snow, Norman resident and University of Oklahoma adjunct professor, was a legendary detective of forensic anthropology, the esoteric science of extracting the secrets of the dead from skeletal remains. His subjects included President John F. Kennedy, the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, the “disappeared” who were exhumed from mass graves in Argentina, victims of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and even Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who lived 3,300 years ago.

Though he was no Indiana Jones, he was known to turn up in jungles, deserts and other exotic places in a rumpled jacket and cowboy boots, a cheerful chain smoker with a Texas drawl. He studied skulls mutilated by bullets and bludgeons.

Using calipers, micrometers and other low-tech instruments, Dr. Snow could determine the sex, race, age and other characteristics of the dead — like left- or right-handedness, and often a full identity— from analyzing the bones alone.

He used computers when they came along, but his stock instruments were like those of the late 19th century, when the celebrated French forensic expert Alphonse Bertillon developed the first successful system for identifying the dead from body measurements.

As living tissue, bones change through life, growing, breaking and undergoing stress. There are about 206 bones (not counting teeth) in an adult — the number varies as many fuse with age — and each has a story to tell, Dr. Snow often said. Like snowflakes, no two bones are exactly alike, and subtle differences can establish congenital conditions, nutritional habits, a history of disease or signs of brutality and murder.

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