Body Farms Go Gruesome For Science

Brilliance | Dec. 09, 2017

If you want to know how a tree grows, it's best to watch it happen. If you want to know how plastic breaks down in a landfill, it's best to watch it happen. And if you want to know how a body decomposes, it's best to watch that happen, too. That's what scientists and students do at outdoor forensic anthropology research laboratories — places colloquially referred to as body farms. They're gross, macabre, and super important for law enforcement and beyond.

Where The Dead Tell Tales

Dr. William Bass established the first body farm out of necessity. After years of identifying victims from their bones at the University of Kansas, the professor joined the forensic anthropology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1971. Soon, the local medical examiner was sending him bodies to examine for law enforcement — but this time, they were much more than skeletons, and instead of asking who the victims were, the police were asking how long the victims had been dead.

"I won't say there was nothing, but there wasn't much in the literature dealing with length of time since death," he said in a 2007 interview. "So I decided, 'You know, if I'm talking to the police about how long somebody's been dead, I better know something about it.'" So he approached the dean and asked for something a bit unorthodox: a few acres of land he could put dead bodies on. The dean agreed, and Bass began his body farm.

It has moved and gradually expanded over the years, and today, there are at least 100 dead bodies there at any one time, in all states and circumstances: buried in shallow graves or floating in water, hidden in car trunks or wrapped in plastic. The many human remains left there over the years have also led to the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, an assortment of more than 1,800 skeletons dating back to the 19th century.

And You Thought Your Job Stinks

Many more body farms have popped up since then. Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, and Colorado Mesa University all have outdoor forensic investigation labs. It's a good thing, too — that wide variety of environments means that researchers can see how differences in weather, altitude, and local species affect decomposition.

Each lab has a separate focus, too. While Tennessee studies bodies under all conditions, Texas State does a lot of work on the relationship between time since death and vulture scavenging. Western Carolina has twice-yearly cadaver dog training, where law-enforcement canines learn to find bodies through smell. The staff at Sam Houston University includes a forensic entomologist, who studies the insects that might take up shop in a dead body. Southern Illinois University's lab is best known for more unusual areas of research, such as a study on the effects of lawnmowers on skeletal remains (you can tell what kind of lawnmower did it from the type of damage sustained) and what happens when a body is encased in concrete (it stays surprisingly fresh).

Labs like this are what allow law enforcement to determine who the victim was, when they died, whether the body was moved, and a whole lot more in order to crack a case. It's not a glamorous job, but someone's got to do it.

To hear about body farms from the scientist who first devised them, check out "Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales" by Dr. William Bass. Any purchases from that link help to support Curiosity.

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