Monday, August 24, 2015

Outdoor forensic anthropology research laboratories are colloquially called “body farms,” a term that many researchers find too sensational but that has stuck following the 1994 publication of Patricia Cornwell’s popular forensic novel “The Body Farm.” We’re going behind the macabre moniker, though, to uncover the real story of how six facilities in the U.S. are quietly conducting pioneering research and working with law enforcement to bring killers to justice.

At these labs, scientists primarily study the process of human decomposition using donated bodies. While the general process of decomp is biologically universal, the rate of it is significantly affected by variables like temperature and humidity, not to mention by the method of disposal of the body.  If a body is found in a car trunk, a house basement, a shallow grave, or a fire pit, how can a forensic anthropologist tell time-since-death? Or discern trauma that happened before death from trauma that happened around the time of death or after death? These questions are being answered by scientists at six “body farms” around the U.S.

The first research facility of this kind was started at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1981 by forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, who found the need to launch a program that studied human decomposition after being called to consult on forensic cases. After 25 years of being the only one in the country, UTK’s groundbreaking facility was followed by similar projects at Western Carolina University (2006), Texas State University (2008), Sam Houston State University (2010), Southern Illinois University, Carbondale(2012), and Colorado Mesa University (2013). These six are currently the only “body farms” that have accepted human donations, although plans are in the works for similar facilities in Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

We asked the directors of the six outdoor forensic anthropology research centers to share with us the most interesting and important work to come out of their centers.

1. Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Dawnie Steadman, Director).

The first of its kind in the world, the original outdoor forensic research center has grown considerably since its founding in 1981. Since it’s been around for decades, research at ARF is varied and copious, as a listing of this year’s publications shows. Law enforcement and medical examiners frequently reach out to UTK anthropologists to assist with case-based research. For example, in a case that involves a body wrapped in plastic in the trunk of a car, investigators might ask how long it takes to reach the stage of decomposition in which the body was found. This type of question can be answered scientifically through ongoing research on decomposition at the ARF.

The facility has also generated the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, which is the largest documented collection of contemporary American skeletons in the world. Researchers come from all over the globe to access it for various studies on biological profile (such as age-at-death, sex, and ancestry studies), pathologies and trauma, and occupation markers.

This collection is also part of the data set used to develop the statistical program FORDISC, which employs measurement data from skulls to help forensic anthropologists figure out sex, height, and ancestry. The most recent project that ARF is undertaking involves the investigation of mass graves, which is a major humanitarian concern in several parts of the world today. Research at the Anthropology Research Facility at UTK has revolutionized how human decomp is studied and paved the way for the development of the five other facilities below.

2.  Forensic Osteology Research Station at Western Carolina University (Cheryl Johnston, Director).

Researchers active at FOReSt are primarily interested in taphonomy, or what happens to a body after death, in order to gain a better understanding of how decomposition is affected by the environment and how other post-mortem processes such as scavenging affect the body itself. Students are integral to the hands-on research, undertaking projects such as figuring out whether clear or black plastic causes a body to decompose faster (black plastic does, for the curious among you) and participating in the recovery of the remains, both of which are good training opportunities. Daily photographs and videos show researchers exactly which animals contribute to decomposition, and they were surprised to find that even possums were feeding on remains.

WCU may be best known, however, for their twice yearly cadaver dog training, as they are among one of the few forensic programs in the country to offer this. Trained cadaver dogs can aid law enforcement in finding and recovering a body more quickly. Recovered remains from FOReSt are catalogued and curated at the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory, and both facilities hope to draw in visiting scientists living in countries where this sort of forensic decomposition research is illegal.

3. Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University (Daniel Wescott, Director).

The research being done at Texas State is largely focused on estimating post-mortem interval (PMI or time-since-death) and on training law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and cadaver dogs to find remains. Both of these goals are accomplished by a focus on the interaction among species within the ecosystem where a body is found.

Vulture scavenging has therefore been a fruitful research topic, as understanding when they come, how they feed, and how to detect their presence is vital to understanding PMI. Detecting bodies is also being done here using infrared photography and drone technology, techniques that save time and reduce the number of people needed for a search. One application of this is in the search for people who have died crossing the Texas border, which FARF is contributing to along with other legal and humanitarian agencies.

Finally, the skeletonized remains that FARF collects following research are extensively catalogued and meticulously documented in terms of age-at-death, sex, health, and lifestyle to form a collection that aids researchers in both forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. Finally, the skeletonized remains that FARF collects following research are extensively catalogued and meticulously documented in terms of age-at-death, sex, health, and lifestyle to form a collection that aids researchers in both forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology.

5. Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (Gretchen Dabbs, Director).

Since they first accepted a human body donation in January 2012, CFAR has received 26 donations from families after death. Research has included work on vulture scavenging and the effects of freezing on decomposition, and Dabbs has discovered that bodies may naturally mummify in southern Illinois due to constant, low-speed winds.

The facility is best known, though, for a study on the effects of lawnmowers on skeletal remains. When a riding lawnmower operator accidentally ran over two research subjects, the CFAR team turned it into a new study, which they published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Their latest research deals with what happens when a body is encased in concrete; namely, that the concrete may preserve the body so that it looks somewhat fresh. This finding is important because a missing persons search in this case should go back several years rather than several months. Don’t be surprised if an upcoming episode of FOX’s Bones uses these studies for background research!

6. Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa University (Melissa Connor, Director).

This newest forensic research facility is also the one at the highest altitude — 4780 feet above mean sea level — and the one furthest west. Researchers have learned from some of their two dozen donations that two main things affect how fast a body becomes skeletonized: pre-death medical conditions of the donor and microenvironments in the high altitude desert. Even placement just a few yards apart can mean dramatic differences in rate of skeletonization and therefore in estimates of time-since-death. Colorado Mesa researchers work primarily with undergraduate students and also take seriously their role as “post-mortem educators,” talking with living donors who have willed their bodies to the research facility after death.

The forensic anthropologists and their students working at these six outdoor forensic research centers around the U.S. are advancing our ability to identify victims of homicide and to provide details that could help find a killer and bring that person to justice.

When he started the first “body farm” decades ago, Bill Bass never dreamed that so many people around the world would be fascinated by forensic anthropology. But the continued growth of people choosing to donate their remains to these research programs — UTK currently has about 3,500 pre-registered donors! — shows that people see the value of this science and the importance of this work to the community at large.

Crimes”. Fobes. Posted: June 10, 2015. Available online: Solving murder cases and assisting in disappearances will be significantly aided by bringing forensic research centers to a greater variety of geographic and ecological locations around the country. It’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to the idea of decomposing human bodies, though. And the concerns about smell, insects, animals, and, well, gooey stuff are not unfounded. But Bass holds firm against these misgivings. “If you’re going to do things scientifically and put the bad guys away,” he says, “you have to do this kind of research.”

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “These 6 'Body Farms' Help Forensic Anthropologists Learn To Solve Crimes". Forbes. Posted: June 10, 2015. Available online:

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