Clyde Snow, an upbeat chainsmoker who spent his life probing skeletons for their secrets—including proof they had been brutally murdered—died Friday at the age of 86, the New York Times reports. The causes were emphysema and cancer, his wife said. Officially a forensic anthropologist, Snow traveled far and wide to identify skeletons and testify in his Texas drawl about how people had died. Long before modern forensic testing, he used simple tools to identify age, race, sex, right- or left-handedness, and even full identity. "The ground is like a beautiful woman," he once told the Washington Post. "If you treat her gently, she’ll tell you all her secrets."
"His first passion in life was human rights," his wife said. In Argentina in 1985, he testified that many skeletons excavated from a mass grave had been tortured and shot—which fueled five convictions and moved public opinion on the issue of Argentina's notorious "disappeared." He also testified against Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity, identified victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, and went to Brazil to confirm the remains of Josef Mengele—the Nazi war criminal who oversaw terrifying medical experiments at Auschwitz and sent 400,000 to their deaths. "Witnesses may forget throughout the years, but the dead, those skeletons, they don’t forget," he said. "Their testimony is silent, but it is also very eloquent."