Anthropology prof uses pollen to help solve crime
What do honeybees, Texas A&M, and CSI have in common? Vaughn Bryant.
The Professor of Anthropology has been with the university for 41 years and is the director of the Texas A&M Palynology Laboratory and the Paleoethnobotany Laboratory.
It has taken Bryant many decades to become a leading expert in palynology, the study of pollen, spores, and other microscopic plant materials. He started studying pollen in 1964 when he was hired as a graduate student assistant while getting his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Texas.
“The person who was awarded the NSF grant (to study pollen) called me in one day and said, ‘We’re looking for somebody to be a palynology assistant, and it pays $300 for 12 months,’” Bryant recalled.
“Back in 1964, that was a lot of money, so I said, ‘Sure, I’m your guy.’ And then I went out and got a dictionary and looked up the word. I had never heard the word ‘palynology’ in my life!”
Bryant went on to receive his Ph.D. in botany from the University of Texas to continue his research in palynology. His first major job in palynology was for the United States Department of Agriculture.
“They needed somebody to figure out if the honey they were buying was really produced in the United States,” he said. “You have to remember there are more than 300,000 potential plant types throughout the world that bees use for nectar or pollen, and each species is unique.”
Bryant analyzed 75 samples of honey for that first assignment. Now, he estimates he has looked at roughly 3,000 honey samples throughout the course of his career.
To say Bryant keeps busy is an understatement. He has analyzed pollen from underwater shipwrecks and other archeological sites, helped reconstruct prehistoric diets and climate changes in Texas, and looked at honey samples to determine their origin. In addition to all that, he is also an expert on both the history of kissing and early diets as revealed from coprolites, or fossilized excrement.
In the midst of all this, Bryant has also found time to create an active research program in forensics, using pollen samples to help solve crimes.
In one example, Bryant received three grams of dirt vacuumed from a crate full of illegal ivory of unknown origin. Bryant was able to narrow down the origin of the ivory shipment to within a few hundred miles in the region of South Africa, which helped lead law enforcement to the poachers.
Another case Bryant helped solve was the murder of a teenager in 1979, which had remained a “cold case” for more than 30 years.
Bryant’s work is painstaking, careful analysis. And most of it he is forbidden to discuss.
To analyze material from any source, the pollen has to be extracted from the soil, sediments, or other types of deposits.
The next step is arguably the hardest: analyzing the pollen. Bryant will sometimes spend as much as eight hours looking for the identity of a single grain of some new pollen type needed to solve the puzzle.
The number of samples of honey that show up at his office for analysis and the high volume of calls he receives from law enforcement personnel are evidence that the knowledge he possesses is important and valuable.
Even when he is able to help investigators, Bryant admits that pollen analysis doesn’t always provide the needed answers. Sometimes the pollen doesn’t reveal anything investigators don’t already know.
Sometimes, however, one or a few grains of pollen can be worth more than gold.
“There have been a number of cases where just a few pollen grains for one plant species have been the most important thing in the whole sample and make the difference between someone going free or being convicted of a crime,” said Bryant.
Despite the many practical applications of palynology, Bryant remains one of few palynologists worldwide working in the field of forensics. He is hopeful that the science of pollen analysis will continue to gain traction.
“Forensic palynology is nothing to sneeze at,” Bryant joked before adding a more serious note. “It is a powerful technique that has unlimited future potential for fighting crime and identifying where things come from.”