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Smithsonian anthropologist, an Eagle Scout, puts together pieces of the past

There was a moment when Dr. David Hunt worried he was losing his audience’s attention as he discussed his job studying bones at the Smithsonian Natural History museum.

He had shown the Scouts and Venturers a femur fractured by a 50-caliber bullet in the Civil War. He explained how clothing leaches its colors into bone, allowing researchers to determine what a person was buried in. He showed them an iron coffin discovered in 2005 with a partially preserved, 19th-century corpse inside.

Hunt’s concern was unfounded. The Report to the Nation delegates he hosted Sunday were spellbound.

“So that I don’t bore you with just this, we’ll go see some other things,” said Hunt, an Eagle Scout anthropologist who gave up a chunk of his afternoon to meet with the Scouts.

Ron K., an Eagle Scout from North Carolina, quickly chimed in.

“This is not boring at all,” he said.

Wrap like an Egyptian

Ron was right at Hunt’s side as the scientist explained the ways different cultures wrapped a person’s head — a practice evidenced by skulls that are longer, taller or flatter than normal.

“Didn’t the Egyptians do some of that?” Ron asked.

“Yes, the Egyptians did some of that in different time periods,” Hunt said, “so you can tell the time period when you see something like this.”

When Hunt asked for other questions, Frankie G., a Webelos Scout from Massachusetts, pointed to a skull with a giant growth above its left eye socket.

“What’s the weird-looking one on the top right?” he asked.

Hunt grabbed the skull and explained that it shows evidence of benign tumors — including some only visible from inside the skull.

“Can you tell how old that person was when they died?” asked Hannah Wheaton, a Venturer from Virginia.

Hunt said that by looking at the person’s tooth wear relative to the time period, he can guess the person died in his mid-20s or early 30s.

Finding forensic answers

Hunt has worked for the Natural History museum since 1990, and he was drawn in by “the ability to derive a synopsis of the life of prehistoric humans from their remains,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2000. “It’s all a big jigsaw puzzle.”

Sometimes that puzzle involves a crime.

The Eagle Scout explained to the delegates that he works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify the remains of children.

This discussion especially fascinated Tyler Schutt, the Illinois Explorer who is the National Youth Representative for Law Enforcement Exploring. Tyler wants to go into a career in law enforcement.

“[Hunt] also went into a forensic side of it, and he talked about … how law enforcement uses forensics and bones to age suspects and de-age suspects” to catch bad guys, Tyler said.

Hunt told Smithsonian magazine that the work fulfills his “need to return something to the community with my specialized training. Hopefully, my work will help connect people with missing loved ones.”

Three final verdicts on the visit

  • Bryce T., an Eagle Scout from Arizona, said he watches the Fox crime show Bones. So he liked how Hunt “figured out where this person was from even though it was so long ago.”
  • Bill Rosner, one half of the Report to the Nation host couple, marveled as the group walked past “do not enter” signs into private hallways and offices. “Now this is behind the scenes,” he said.
  • Gilberto G., a Life Scout from Rhode Island, was equally impressed. “That was more than cool,” he said. “That was sick.”

Follow the Report to the Nation

Find more coverage here, and follow me on Twitter: @bryanonscouting.

Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland. See more photos here.

Video recap of Day 2

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