The Bone Woman by Clea Koff


The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo by Clea Koff

Published on February 8, 2005 by Random House Trade Paperbacks

Genres Anthropology, History, War

Pages 304

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The Bone Woman is based on the work of forensic anthropologist Clea Koff. Koff writes about her experiences working with the United Nations on 7 different missions to Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Rwanda. When Koff went on her first mission to Rwanda in 1996, she was only 23 years old and had been previously working in a forensic laboratory in Berkeley, California. She worked on a team of 16 other scientists to uncover evidence of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. She then spent the next four years working on similar UN missions in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, while gathering evidence of mass graves and the killing that happened there. Her book recounts what she saw and how it affected her, who was prosecuted after the evidence her team recovered and what she learned about the world during her work. She also speaks about the meeting with survivors and working with relatives of the missing/deceased in order to try and identify remains.

First I have to say that I hold a BA in Anthropology and spent my time during my undergraduate education working primarly with human bones. I focused my studies on forensic anthropology and osteology, so I read any book I can find in this field. I am not sure that this book would appeal to anyone who doesn’t have an interest in science or history. I really enjoyed this book, I thought it was an appropriate mix of science and Koff’s explanation of the environment she was working in, as well as how the situations made her feel and how she interacted with the other people around her. She also took the time in the book to put things in terms that the general public would understand, even without a background in science. Koff also took the time to explain the background on each genocide or human right violation in the countries she worked, so that if you weren’t familiar with what happened, you had a better idea. This book is a it a graphic, in the sense that Koff is describing the conditions while working inside a mass grave, as well as how anthropologists clean bones after they are recovered. I do have two criticisms about this book, the first being that Koff seems to be constantly complaining about her boss Bill, which is annoying. I understand that they were working in very high stress environments, but I felt like every few pages she was complaining about her boss. The second, is that some of her writing was not the greatest. I am aware that she is an anthropologist and not an author, but I am sure she had an editor. At one point, she describes a mass grave in Croatia looking like a souffle. I found this not only to be odd, but just inappropriate I guess.

Overall this was a great book, especially for anyone who studied the field as I did. It gives the reader a very real idea of the what working as a forensic anthropologist in these types of situations would be life, as well as explaining the horrific tragedies that occurred in these 4 countries. The UN team’s work in these areas led to the identification of many missing people and helped provide physical evidence that was later used to prosecute those responsible.

2 thoughts on “The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

    • smdillard says:

      It is a great book. I am by no means an expert either, I just studied in the same area in college. The author does a good job at explaining technical terms in a way that everyone can understand. She does the same thing when she refers to bones, so I think pretty much anyone would be able to understand it!

      Liked by 1 person

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