Modern death and ancient CSI

The first body farm outside the US is currently under construction in Australia, and will help solve both modern and ancient murder mysteries.

  When you look at a fossilised dinosaur skeleton, you’re seeing the moment of death frozen in time.   Michael Rivera/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you look at a fossilised dinosaur skeleton, you’re seeing the moment of death frozen in time. Michael Rivera/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The picturesque bushland of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, will soon host Australia's first body farm. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), currently under construction, will provide 12 acres of secure land for scientists to run experiments using donated human bodies. These bodies will be placed across the property to monitor the natural progression of decay in an Australian bushland environment.

One of the aims of the research is to solve some extremely old mysteries. When you look at a fossilised dinosaur skeleton still held in its rocky matrix, you’re seeing a moment ‒ the moment of death ‒ frozen in time. You’re looking at something akin to a crime scene photo: except the 'crime' took place tens or hundreds of millions of years ago, the perpetrator is long gone, and there’s no one to interview. The only clues are held within the fossil itself.

Normally, the investigation of a crime scene falls into the purview of forensic science. But when examining an ancient 'crime scene,' there is no legal case to be held or prosecution of the accused to take place.

The science of examining death and preservation in both modern and fossil creatures is called taphonomy. This involves recording what pose a body is in, whether any body parts are missing, the presence of skin, scales or hair, and if there are any scratches on bones that would indicate the presence of a toothy predator or a tool-wielding human.

  The ancient detectives hard at work.  Steven Salisbury (reproduced with permission) 

The ancient detectives hard at work. Steven Salisbury (reproduced with permission) 

Anyone who studies death and preservation of remains ‒ forensic scientists, archaeologists, palaeontologists ‒ needs places where they can examine first-hand the natural processes of decay over days, weeks and even years. AFTER will give researchers this opportunity.

The first of its kind outside the US, the facility will cater to a broad range of researchers. According to project leader Professor Shari Forbes, the AFTER acronym by design does not contain the word 'forensics'.

“The intent is that the facility will not just focus on forensics, but it will cover a much broader range of disciplines," she explained. "Forensic science has taken the term ‘taphonomy’ from palaeontological and archaeological disciplines. So, anyone who works in the area of taphonomy is naturally in a very multidisciplinary area.”

Prof Forbes, a forensic chemist in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has conducted research at US body farms, but now looks forward to working a little closer to home. 

The most pertinent reason for creating AFTER is the climatic difference between the US and Australia, and how that might influence how quickly and in what way a human body decays.

“[The US body farms] are not representative of the Australian climate, so they’re not the best model for us,” Prof Forbes explained.

After returning from the US, she met with like-minded colleagues who had been discussing how to set up a local body farm for the past five years. Together, they decided that the best candidate organisation to support a body farm was UTS, as they already had a body donation program.

The next key step: finding a location that was remote, but not inaccessible. They settled on a patch of bushland where Prof Forbes had previously conducted some taphonomic experiments using animal remains as a close approximation for human remains.

Given her expertise in decomposition chemistry, Prof Forbes has spent a lot of time conducting research with anthropologists, archaeologists, entomologists and geologists.

“We identified anyone in Australia who studies decomposition or taphonomy from a forensic angle, and we were fortunate to be introduced to people such as Professor [Richard 'Bert'] Roberts, who was able to identify uses for AFTER that were non-forensic, such as for archaeology and palaeontology.”

  Studying the taphonomy of humans and other animals can yield valuable data for a range of researchers.   Anil1956/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Studying the taphonomy of humans and other animals can yield valuable data for a range of researchers. Anil1956/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Prof Roberts, Director of University of Wollongong's Centre for Archaeological Science, is enthusiastic when describing this new synergy between different disciplines.

“The North American body farms are really just for anthropologists and forensic scientists, but AFTER will provide a new opportunity for forensic scientists, archaeologists, and palaeontologists to work together and share knowledge," he said.

With a multidisciplinary team on board, Prof Forbes foresees that each donation will provide the most experimental data possible, with many forensic scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists running experiments simultaneously.

Daily and weekly non-invasive visual observations of decay, odour collection, thermal imaging, and hyperspectral imaging, as well as collection of DNA, soil samples, and so on, can all be conducted around the one donation. And the samples required are often quite small, on the order of milligrams or grams, and can be shared amongst the team for multiple analyses. 

Prof Roberts points out that when archaeologists look at ancient remains and artefacts, they have to piece the puzzle back together, essentially going backwards in time. But with the experimental work at AFTER, they can finally see what happens in real-time and run an experiment 'forward' in time.

While the forensic scientists meticulously record data from each body as it decays, Prof Roberts’ team will bury archaeological stone artefacts alongside the bodies to examine whether microbes or lipids 'stick' to the stone surfaces. Lipid biomarkers are also of interest to Prof Forbes, who wishes to record whether the type and degradation of lipids can indicate how long a body has been buried.

  The extinct  Procoptodon  has an approximate analogue in the modern-day kangaroo.   Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 3.0)

The extinct Procoptodon has an approximate analogue in the modern-day kangaroo. Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

So where do the palaeontologists come in? They are not concerned with decay patterns in modern humans, but in species long extinct. For palaeontologists studying fossil animals that are not too dissimilar to their modern day counterparts, such as the extinct giant kangaroo Procoptodon, AFTER will provide the perfect opportunity to run decay experiments using uniquely Australian approximations for these ancient beasts.

But the further back in time we look, the more alien extinct animals become. For instance, the closest approximation to a decaying dinosaur body is difficult to find. While modern birds are in fact dinosaurs, they have highly evolved lightweight bones for flight, and no teeth in their jaws. So they’re not a perfect analogue for many large dinosaurs. 

A large bodied mammal such as a cow may seem a better fit, but the presence of fur, hair, wool, or any other distinctly mammalian covering is decidedly not dinosaurian. 

What about reptiles, then, especially those closest to the dinosaur evolutionary tree? While a modern crocodile carcass might seem perfect, their sprawling limbs and elongated bodies mean they might not decay the same way as many upright-walking dinosaurs did.

However, not all is lost — we can still use modern experiments to better understand the decay and preservation of ancient animals. By conducting multiple taphonomic experiments with many different types of animal, then combining these results to create a hypothetical dinosaur decay model, palaeontologists can get closer to the truth.

In this way, we can finally solve the mysteries of even the coldest of cold cases.