Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Texas, A Living Lab For Studying The Dead

An hour south of Austin, the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility sits on ranch land covered with oak, juniper, knee-high grass and limestone. The land looks like pretty typical Texas hill country, except for one thing — it's populated with cows and corpses.

Only a handful of universities in the world offer space to study the decomposition of human remains. Texas State University's facility in central Texas is the newest. Students here learn how to study human bones to identify the dead and discover clues about what caused their deaths.

A 5-acre fenced-in plot of land functions as an outdoor decomposition research facility, explains Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at Texas State and the director of the school's Forensic Anthropology Center.

"These remains have been here since February," Hamilton says as she stands at the edge of a 4-by-12-foot trench.

In the bottom of the trench are human remains — sort of rust-colored, about the color of the soil. Hamilton continues, "This individual was brought out completely fleshed. We wanted to look at what the Texas sun and aridity and also the periods of rain would do to a skeleton here in Texas. As of right now, they're faster. They mummify faster; they skeletonize faster; they decompose faster."

Four graduate students are in the pit with the partially buried skeleton. They're clearing away compacted earth with trowels and brushes. As they dig deeper into the red soil, the putrid odor of decomposition wafts up. A slim, tattooed 30-year-old from New Orleans is holding the skull, cleaning dirt from the eye orbits.

Teresa Gotay Nugent says she was born in Connecticut and plans to go to South America to work on human rights cases. "Even though we're working with the dead, we actually help the living, the families of people that are missing and feared dead," Nugent says. "It's not all just macabre. You can actually make a difference doing this."

Another graduate student, Laura Ayers, is from Houston. She's in her second year of studying forensic anthropology. "Right now I'm trying to get the pelvic girdle out, the hip bones," she says while scraping. "I don't want to pull anything because it might break it." Ayers says she wants to be a professor and consult with local law enforcement.

Two students gingerly lift out the bones and place them on a sheet of plastic in the crude form of a complete skeleton; the other pair continues to dig with shovels. One of them has been searching fruitlessly for the kneecaps for a half-hour.

The bones are then placed inside a big red plastic bag, to be taken to the lab.

Hamilton watches approvingly. "OK, it looks like at the end of the recovery for this particular body, we have the majority of all bones recovered with exception of two kneecaps and some of the phalanges — parts of the hands and feet," Hamilton says. "So they did really good."

They will have to return later, screen the spaded dirt and look for the missing bones. It's a meticulous process. Nothing gets left behind.

"What should we do with the fingernails?" someone asks. "You can put them in a bag, and we'll dispose of them when we get to the lab," comes the answer.

The recovery of the skeleton is handled with dignity. He was, after all, a man, in his 30s. He died suddenly, and his family gave his body to the decomposition research facility with the understanding that he would further the knowledge of human osteology.

In its first year, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State has received seven donated bodies. In comparison, a much older facility at the University of Tennessee has more than 650 individuals.

They need more donors at the Texas center. Asking for them is a delicate matter, but it must be done, to understand the story of the bones.

The idea of a "body farm" was mentioned in Patricia Cornwell's book of the same name referring to the pioneering work of Bill Bass. His farm researches decomposition rates in bodies under certain conditions to help law enforcement understand this forensic issue. To learn more about Bill Bass and his work:

  • Wikipedia article.

  • National Geographic Video

  • A simple explanation of what a body farm is.

  • CNN.

  • __________________________

    Burnett, John. 2009. "In Texas, A Living Lab For Studying The Dead". NPR. Posted: June 30, 2009. Available online:

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