‘The Bone Lady’ before it was cool

A black bear’s forepaw looks almost identical to a human hand in skeletal form. Jaw and hip bones are most often used to determine the gender of skeletal remains. And a mummy that was known for millennia as the “Princess of Thebes” actually was a man.

These and other interesting facts were presented Saturday by Mary H. Manhein, also known as the “Bone Lady,” to a group of several dozen people who gathered at the Zachary Branch Library to hear about Manhein’s storied career in forensic anthropology.

Manhein, a published author who serves as the director of LSU’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory, was identifying skeletal remains to help solve missing person cases long before a single episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” aired on network TV.

“I was a forensic anthropologist before it was cool,” Manhein said.

Ever since shows such as CBS’ “CSI” and Fox’s “Bones” thrust forensic anthropology into the public spotlight, Manhein began receiving letters from children who wanted to grow up and “do what they do in ‘CSI,’ ” she said.

She joked that she usually responds with, “So do I.”

Manhein then switched into acting mode, pointing at the ground and rattling off characteristics of an imaginary skeleton, such as age, sex, cause of death and how long since the death occurred.

“You can be made to look like such a moron if you make preliminary judgements like that,” she said while laughing, adding that most bones must be analyzed in the lab before she can be more certain about who or what the bones may have come from.

She said the most important goal of forensic anthropology is to identify people who cannot be identified by any other means than what’s left of their body. Other job duties include trauma analysis and field recovery, she said.

Ashley Roberts, 12, wasn’t creeped out by the dead bodies and sometimes mildly graphic nature of Manhein’s presentation. In fact, it only furthered her curiosity in the field, Roberts said.

Another audience member, Lisa Lacour, who brought along her two children, called the presentation “fascinating,” adding, “(Manhein) was a really good speaker.”

Lacour’s daughter Tory, 14, said she also enjoyed the speaking event, and even suggested she’d consider a forensics career of her own in the future.

Throughout the presentation, which was set up for teenagers, Manhein highlighted a series of missing persons cases that she’s worked on during her 25 years as a forensics expert.

The oldest of them involved a 16-year-old boy from Texas who went missing in Bossier Parish in 1975.

In 2005, Manhein’s team submitted his DNA and began working on a facial reconstruction, which they eventually presented to about 100 law enforcement officers in northwest Louisiana.

But no one recognized him. Sometime later, Manhein was meeting with a detective from Many about an unrelated case. He looked over to the counter, saw the boy’s face and said, “He looks familiar.”

Manhein almost fell off her stool.

Still, the case was nowhere near solved. After many dead ends, a woman eventually responded to an advertisement placed in a Texas newspaper with an image of the facial reconstruction. She said she thought the published image looked like her missing son. Investigators collected DNA from the family and eventually matched it to the boy’s.

“I cannot believe that after all this time, 32 years, someone was still looking for my son,” Manhein recalled the woman as saying.

While bringing loved ones back to their families is always the goal in missing person cases, Manhein said, it doesn’t necessarily bring closure.

“But it helps them to know what happened,” she said.

Manhein has written two nonfiction books about the many cases she’s worked on, with a third volume on the way.

Last year, she made her first jump into fiction with “Floating Souls: The Canal Murders,” the first of a mystery series in which the protagonist is a female forensic anthropologist.

“The transition … from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, is not easy,” Manhein said, adding that creating dialogue is the most difficult part.

When asked whether she would eventually give up forensic anthropology to pursue writing full time, Manhein answered, “Oh yes … sooner than eventually.”