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La. Forensic Anthropologist Unearthing Crime

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - On the campus of the University of Louisiana, Dan Cring teaches anthropology to his students, but off-campus, Cring finds himself digging up the past, sometimes past crimes.

Cring is a forensic anthropologist who is often called on by local law enforcement agencies to help in investigations involving skeletal remains.

Most of the time the bones turn out to be non-human, but recently, Cring was called to assist Lafayette's forensic pathologist, Dr. Cameron Snider in the investigation of the death of 13-year-old Alexuia Feast. The girl's decomposing body was found in late October. Investigators believe the body had been in the woods for two to three weeks.

"It is a team effort," Cring said of his work with Snider on the investigation.

Cring said he could not comment further about the case, but spoke in general about recovering information from a scene. Time is of the essence, he said.

"Artifacts, physical evidence and human remains are sources...(that) degrade over time," Cring said. "So yes, it is more difficult with the passage of time to recover information about the past."

On average, he estimates he assists with about one human case a year. Most of his cases are non-human, animal bones dug up on archaeological digs.

Last month, he was busy with two cases from Vermilion Parish. When the body of a man who had been missing for about 20 years was found in a lake in Vermilion Parish, authorities there called Cring to assist.

Earlier in September, a shrimper fished a skull out of Vermilion Bay. Cring was able to say that the skull wasnt that of a fisherman missing since January. Cring was able to determine that the skull belonged to a prehistoric young adult, aged 20 to 34 of Native American descent. He believes the skull was dislodged from a burial mound that was washed over by the bays shifting sea level.

Cring said he believes the skull is prehistoric based on his experience working on forensic and archaeological cases.

"Carbon-14 dating would confirm the archaeological age of the bone," Cring said.

Crings office is a testament of his penchant for history. The walls are covered with posters of Spain, where Cring lived as a teen and got the bug to, quite literally, dig into the past. Inside a bookcase, skulls sit on shelves. A small table is lined with papers and models of teeth. He weaves his way through stacks of boxes, skirts a chair near the door to reach the chair behind his desk.

"The standing joke about archaeologists is that their lives are in ruins," Cring cracked.

Cring was called out to work his first forensic case as a graduate student at Florida State University.

In 1987, he accepted a position at UL (then-USL). Within the first few years of teaching at the university, Cring worked his first case for area law enforcement.

"(It) was a dismembered man found at Trappeys," Cring said. The plant is no longer operational but was located near the Evangeline Thruway and Pinhook.

"I remember they were canning sweet potatoes," Cring said. The man was found in the factorys waste treatment pond.

"That was a gruesome scene," he said.

Although he may be called out to assist with a human forensic case about once a year, Cring sees his place in the classroom as his first priority.

"My first job here is education," he said. "I think we would have a safer world if we understood the world."

He and his research partner, Ron Kephart, an anthropological linguistics professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, are researching how humans need for smaller social, family groups may lead to violence. Their paper, "The Social Imperative" hopes to show that overpopulation is a cause for violence.

"Most of human existence has been in small family groups, but increasing population density necessitated the larger and more complex social structures that we see today," Cring said. "But we have reached the point that there are simply too many people on earth and the social structures can no longer keep violent conflict from happening, hence the genocide and war we have today."

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