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Life on the Body Farm

April 20, 2017

When Mary Scarborough wrote the lyrics to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in 1923, she probably didn’t have a research facility in mind. She wouldn’t find cows, chickens or pigs at “The Body Farm” – just scores of rotting human bodies, covered in maggots.

The Body Farm (officially known as the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility) was the brainchild of Dr. William Bass, a Forensic Anthropologist from Kansas who helps law enforcement agencies estimate how long a person has been dead. Determining the time of death is crucial in confirming alibis and establishing timelines for violent crimes.

After 11 years of watching human decomposition, Bass realized how little was known about what happens to the human body after death. So, he approached the University of Tennessee Medical Center and asked for a small plot of land where he could control what happens to a body, post-mortem.

Bass’s Body Farm drew the attention of readers in 1994 when popular crime novelist Patricia Cornwell featured it in her book of the same name. In her book, Cornwell describes a research facility that stages human corpses in various states of decay, in a variety of locations like a wooded area, the trunk of a car, under water or under a pile of leaves – all to determine how human bodies decay under varying circumstances.

According to Bass, two things occur when a person dies. At the time of death, digestive enzymes begin to feed on the body, “liquefying” the tissues. If flies have access to it, they lay eggs in the body, eventually becoming larvae that feast on the remaining tissues. By monitoring and noting how much time it takes for maggots to consume the body’s tissues, authorities can estimate how long a person has been dead. Scientists can also compare the types of flies that are indigenous to the area and the types that have invaded the body to determine if the body has been moved.  “People will have alibis for certain periods”, says Bass. “If you can determine that the death happened at another time or location, it makes a big difference in the outcome of the court case”.

In addition to watching tissue decomposition, anthropologists look at the teeth of the victim to try to determine their age at the time of death. The skull and pelvic girdles are helpful in determining their sex and can estimate how tall the person was by measuring the long bones of the legs or even a single finger.  Other researchers watch what happens to 5 types of fatty acids that leak from the body into the ground. By analyzing the profiles of the fatty acids, scientists can determine the time of death and how long it has been at its current location. However, “perps” often try to confuse investigators by tampering with the bodies and burial sites by spraying the victim with insecticides that prevent insects like the maggot from doing their job.

At another facility at the University of New Mexico, scientists have collected over 500 human skeletons and store them in a “skeleton archive” to create biological profiles based on what happens to bones over time. And in Germany, the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science has been working on a three dimensional graphics program to produce more accurate likenesses of victims, based on forensic data.

Since the inception of Dr. Bass’s original Body Farm, 3 additional body farms have been established in different parts of the country. “It’s important to gather information from other research facilities across the United States”, says Bass. “Bodies react differently in varying degrees of humidity and vegetation”.

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