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For decades, decomposing human remains have been studied around the country at a handful of aptly named “body farms”—research facilities where donated bodies are deposited in the name of science.
However, the rate of decomposition—the holy grail for investigators trying to figure out a time of death—is highly subjective to weather and environmental conditions in different geographic locations.
Now, new research from New England is studying the changes that were left in bones from real forensic anthropologic cases in the region, and researches are saying a pattern has quickly emerged.
A signature of changes to the bones, called “patterning,” can help law enforcement infer certain things about the remains like if they were moved after death from one environment to another.
The research is the first attempt to document the full set of taphonomic changes in remains in New England, according to a press release.
James Pokines, a corresponding author and assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine, said the research may have a significant impact on death investigations in the region.
“There are clear differences in the changes in bones caused in different environments,” he said in a statement, “on land, these include animal scavenging, algae formation, soil staining and weathering of bones. These differ in ways from bones that have been buried or recovered from the ocean.”
And those changes can tell police a lot about what happened to the body after death. If the precise patterning on the bones doesn’t match what is expected in the location of the remains, the police can infer that the body has been moved after death.
The work might also help investigators differentiate natural changes in the bones from any changes made by possible perpetrators.
The study called, “Taphonomic Alterations to Terrestrial Surface-Deposited Human Osseous Remains in a New England Environment” can be found in Journal of Forensic Identification.