Digging Into the Past

The Smithsonian houses the remains of 35,000 people. One man knows the bones—and their stories—very well.

By: Rebecca Wallace

David Hunt doesn’t have a typical Washington office. His houses bones—lots of them—from a femur to a dozen skulls lined up in a row.

As manager of the physical-anthropology collections at the National Museum of Natural History, Hunt is responsible for the remains of some 35,000 people. Most of the bones came from excavations; until the early 1970s, the Smithsonian was the repository for human remains recovered during federal projects such as dam building.

“I can pick up any one of these skulls and there’s a story to tell,” Hunt says.

For 20 years, he has kept the collection organized for researchers interested in everything from disease progression to migration patterns.

Hunt, 52, grew up in Illinois reading encyclopedias and National Geographic. He got hooked on physical anthropology at the University of Illinois.

He describes a skeleton as a book, and he’s fluent in the language. He cradles one skull and points out traits—the eye orbits, the narrow nose—that indicate its European ancestry.

This skill comes in handy outside the museum, when Hunt is analyzing recovered bodies for medical examiners and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. While his work can bring closure to cases—and to worried families—that doesn’t make it easier: “There are times when you figure out what happened and it’s pretty sad.”

His familiarity with the Smithsonian collection allows him to help the curators of exhibits such as “Written in Bone,” running until January 2013. Hunt suggested placing a particular skeleton at the end—that of physical anthropologist Grover Krantz, who left his bones and those of his Irish wolfhounds to the museum in 2003.

Hunt already has pledged his own bones to the museum. “After death I won’t use them anymore,” he says. “Somebody ought to.”

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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