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- History and Development of the Role of Taphonomy in Forensic Anthropology
- Decomposition and Postmortem Change
- Early Postmortem Changes
- Late Postmortem Changes
- Insect Decomposers
- Drying and Mummification
- Animal Activity
- Decomposition of Hard Tissue and the Fate of Skeletal Remains
- Stages of Decomposition
- Time since Death (PMI) Estimation
- Trends in Current Research
Forensic taphonomy is a rapidly developing field within forensic anthropology and forensic archeology. Research in forensic taphonomy encompasses refining estimates of time since death in various scenarios, differentiating peri- and postmortem trauma, identifying the effects of burning, understanding the directionality of impact in blunt force and projectile trauma in various skeletal elements, reassociating individuals commingled in secondary mass graves or explosions, weathering of bones and teeth, and an extended range of related topics.
Although taphonomy itself has a relatively long history in the paleontological and archeological literature, forensic taphonomy is a comparatively new discipline, developing in response to the demands of casework and to the various circumstances in which bodies are found.
History and Development of the Role of Taphonomy in Forensic Anthropology
Taphonomy roughly means the study of death assemblages and is said to refer to the laws of burial; the term itself was coined in 1940 by Efremov, who stated that taphonomy was the ‘study of the transition, in all details, of organics from the biosphere into the lithosphere of the geological record.’ Until relatively recently (the late 1980s), taphonomy was a term used predominantly within vertebrate paleontology, prehistoric archeozoology, and archeology. In 1997, Haglund and Sorg defined the goals of traditional taphonomy as the preservation, observation, or recovery of dead organisms; the reconstruction of their biology or ecology; and the reconstruction of the circumstances of their death. Taphonomy has featured prominently in paleontological and zooarcheological publications since the later three-quarters of the twentieth century. In 1927, Johannes Weigelt’s published Rezente Wirbeltierleichen und ihre palaobiologische Bedeutung, which was unfortunately not translated into English, as Vertebrate Carcasses and their Paleobiological Implications, until 1989. This prescient book detailed Weigelt’s observations on the decomposition of animal carcasses on the coast of Texas and brought to light the role of insects, surface decomposition, carcass positioning in burial and partial burial contexts, sequences of disarticulation, and environmental significance among other topics. In 1981, Pat Shipman published an edited volume with a huge impact on prehistoric archeology and archeozoology entitled Life History of a Fossil: an Introduction to Taphonomy and Paleoecology, which introduced a wide variety of techniques for assessing taphonomic principles. Arguably, the first forensically relevant taphonomic publication in book format occurred in 1987 with Boddington, Garland, and Janaway’s Death, Decay and Reconstruction: Approaches to Archaeology and Forensic Science; although it contained a chapter by W.M. Bass, it was primarily archeological in orientation and received little notice outside of the United Kingdom. Lyman’s Vertebrate Taphonomy, published in 1994, brought together the current knowledge in the field, ranging from skeletal assemblage accumulation and dispersal to the diagenesis of bone itself. The traditional goals of taphonomy were emphasized, including reconstructing paleoenvironments, determining which factors cause differential destruction/attrition of bone, understanding selective transport of skeletal elements, discriminating human from nonhuman agents of bone modification, and reconstructing paleoenvironments.
Research in forensic taphonomy was spurred by the founding of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s (UTK) Anthropological Research Facility (ARF) in 1981. Since 2000, the facility receives donations of approximately 100 bodies per year and the WM Bass Skeletal Collection, derived from the facility, now numbers around 700 skeletons. Although UTK staff and students have presented and published widely, the majority of publications emanating from the institution concern skeletal metrics rather than taphonomy itself. A paucity of publications from the ARF relating to decomposition have been forthcoming over the past 30 years of its existence; the best known are probably the earliest, for example, Rodriguez and Bass in 1987 and Mann et al. in 1990, and although the most recent publication by Vass in 2011 proposes formulae for calculating the postmortem interval (PMI), it presents no data from which these formulae are derived and no prior publications from the ARF provide these data. In the twenty-first century’s recent years, at least three other human decomposition facilities have been founded: Texas State University at San Marcos, Western Carolina University, and Sam Houston State University, TX.
1997 saw the publication of Haglund and Sorg’s landmark edited volume, Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. The volume consisted primarily of case studies and dealt with decomposition in different environments, bone modification (including fire, trauma, trophy skulls, and scavenging), and the fate of remains in water (lacustrine, riverine, and maritime). Haglund and Sorg stated the goals of forensic taphonomy to be estimating time and circumstances since death; distinguishing postmortem conditions, which may confound human identification; determining cause and manner of death; identifying factors relating to skeletal element survival; reconstruction of events following death; collecting and analyzing data about context; discriminating post- from perimortem modification; and estimating the PMI. The techniques of forensic taphonomy included involving the application of archeological search and recovery techniques, the laboratory analysis of remains, and the understanding of soft tissue and bone modification and distribution. The 1997 publication was followed in 2002 by a second edited volume, Advances in Forensics Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archaeological Perspectives, which presented more diverse and international case studies with a greater emphasis on context. Further publications in 2008 included Tibbett and Carter’s Soil analysis in Forensic Taphonomy: Chemical and Biological Effects of Buried Human Remains and Adams and Byrd’s Recovery, Analysis and Identification of Commingled Human Remains.
Forensic taphonomic literature and research are concerned with documenting the changes to the body that occur postmortem from the earliest signs of autolysis to skeletonization, as well as the fate of skeletalized remains in disarticulation, transport, weathering, and so on.
Decomposition and Postmortem Change
The cessation of oxygenated blood flow to body tissues initiates the start of autolysis or ‘self-digestion.’ Autolytic changes can be seen microscopically shortly after death. These include mitochondrial swelling and calcification, dilated endoplasmic reticulum, aggregated cytoskeletal elements, and membrane disruption. The cell nucleus and mitochondria also exhibit condensed chromatin as a result of the fall in pH. Autolysis begins in the most metabolically active cells, which are more sensitive to oxygen depletion, such as the brain and heart muscle and those that contain a large quantity and diverse array of hydrolytic enzymes, such as the liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines.
Macroscopic autolytic changes result from the leakage of hydrolytic enzymes into the intercellular spaces where cell junctions facilitate cell-to-cell adhesion. The breakdown of this intercellular adhesion results in the gross appearance of tissue friability and eventual liquefaction, and some of the notable postmortem changes such as skin slippage.
Autolytic activity creates an increasingly anaerobic environment which favors the rapid growth of bacteria that normally inhabit the body. The release of large amounts of breakdown products provides nutrients for bacterial and fungal flora. The proliferation of microorganisms and their metabolic byproducts results in the color, odor, and morphological changes characteristic of the putrefactive stage of decomposition.
Early Postmortem Changes
Early postmortem changes are often referred to as those that occur within 2 h of death. The changes include ‘pallor,’ a paleness of the skin on upper areas of the body seen in light-skinned individuals due to the loss of circulating oxygenated blood and the gravitational settling of blood to lower regions. Skeletal muscles relax during this period, including sphincter muscles, and this may cause early purging of fecal, urinary, or gastric contents.
Relaxation of the obicularis oculi muscles may expose the cornea to drying and this exhibits as a dark band running across the cornea, known as tache noir sclerotique. Postmortem autolytic changes within the retina, and to a lesser extent the lens, result in electrolytes diffusing into the vitreous body. Of particular interest, and the most studied, is the influx of potassium ions (K+) into the vitreous humor. Owing to the isolation of the vitreous humor compared with blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), levels of vitreous potassium are a favored area of study in estimating PMI.
Late Postmortem Changes
Late postmortem changes are often referred to as those that become observable from 2 to 4 h postmortem.
Livor mortis, also known as lividity or hypostasis, is the gravitational pooling of blood to lower dependant areas resulting in a red/purple coloration. Although livor mortis is commonly seen between 2 and 4 h postmortem, its onset may begin in the ‘early’ period, as little as 30 min postmortem. In the early period of livor mortis, the coloration is not ‘fixed’ and pressure of the skin can cause ‘blanching.’ During this period, changing the position of the body can result in resettling of the blood in newly dependant areas. After a period of time, the blood coagulates and livor mortis becomes fixed. Rigor mortis is a reversible postmortem stiffening of the muscles, beginning in the muscles of the face and jaw, and extending to the rest of the body as the postmortem period progresses. The onset of rigor mortis is dependent upon temperature and the metabolic status of the deceased and occurs concomitantly with early stage autolysis. The timing of the onset of rigor mortis is variable, but it normally begins 2–6 h postmortem and has extended over the body by 12 h postmortem. Rigidity can last for 24–82 h after which gradual resolution occurs, progressing in the same order as rigor mortis commenced. Algor mortis is the cooling of body after death as it equilibrates with ambient temperature. Normal body temperature (rectal) can vary between individuals, ranging from 34.2 to 37.6 °C with a mean of 36.9 °C. Rectal temperature is similar in value to that of the brain, lungs, and abdominal organs and is often referred to as ‘deep central temperature.’
A number of factors can influence body temperature at time of death, including emotional stress, pathological febrile conditions, metabolic disorders, circulatory disorders, and exposure to extreme environmental temperatures. Further factors influence the rate of cooling. These include body posture, body size, body fat, and presence of clothing.
Skin slippage occurs as a result of autolytic release of hydrolytic enzymes at the junction of the epidermis and dermis. This results in loosening and sloughing of the epidermis. This may be seen initially as the formation of vesicles or blisters. Fluid-filled vesicles known as ‘bullae’ can also form beneath the epidermis. Larger areas of skin may slough off and this can occur on any area of the body. Hair and nails will also be lost with the skin and where this occurs on the head, the whole scalp can slide off.
Color changes are indicative of putrefactive changes. They occur as a result of (1) the degradation of hemoglobin and (2) the formation of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) within vessels and tissues by enteric bacteria. Greening of the lower abdomen may occur within a few hours of death. The cecum, in particular, has a large population of enteric bacteria and will produce a large quantity of hydrogen sulfide. This will react with hemoglobin and other heme-containing proteins (e.g., myoglobin) and produce a green coloration in the lower abdomen, which becomes widespread throughout body tissues. The greening of superficial blood vessels can give the appearance of ‘marbling,’ sometimes called suggillation.
Bloating occurs as a result of putrefactive gases becoming trapped within the body. In addition to hydrogen sulfide, a wide range of other gases are produced during the putrefactive stage. The trapped gases cause distension of the abdomen, and in males, the trapped gases can be forced into the scrotum via the inguinal canals, causing distension of the scrotum and penis. As gases build up within tissues, bloating can also be observed in the tissues of the face and neck.
Putrefaction results in a complex mixture of volatile gases produced from the breakdown of carbohydrates and proteins. Two notable products are putrescine and cadaverine, both products of protein breakdown. These products have the characteristic decompositional odor and are utilized by cadaver dogs in the search for human remains.
The rate of autolysis and the rate of putrefaction resulting from microbiological activity are dependent primarily on temperature. Given time, autolytic and putrefactive changes will result in liquefaction of soft tissue.
The rate of decomposition of a body accessed by insects is rapidly increased, as larval masses can result in significant soft tissue loss in a short period of time. In a suitable environment, insects are attracted to a body within minutes, their activity being temperature-dependent also. The population of insects on a body will be particular to that specific environment, as well as to a given geographic area. Typically, blowflies (Diptera: Calliphoridae) will be attracted to the volatile gases emanating from the alimentary canal via natural orifices (e.g., mouth, nose, anus) and those produced by early stage putrefactive changes. Their larvae can form large masses feeding on soft tissue. Although beetles (Coleoptera) are commonly associated with remains in later stages of decomposition, some (e.g., Silphidae) are present on the body during early stage decomposition, as dipteral larval masses represent a food source for them.
Adipocere, also known as ‘grave wax,’ is a caseous material formed by the saponification of body fat. Adipocere may appear paste-like, be crumbly in texture, or may form a hard material depending upon the type of fatty acids involved and the chemical environment in which it is formed. Moist, anaerobic conditions favor the formation of adipocere but its appearance is not restricted to immersed remains. Any grave or terrestrial environment where adequate moisture is present can result in the formation of adipocere. In surface depositions, adipocere formation can occur in oxygen-deficient dependent areas where fat is in contact with moist ground. Adipocere is very persistent and may remain stable for many years, exerting a preservation effect on the body.
Drying and Mummification
Drying and Mummification Postmortem drying of remains is commonly seen in the early stages postmortem. This can frequently be seen in the extremities (e.g., fingers and toes), lips, and genitals.
In dry, low-humidity environments, remains may become mummified. The skin becomes desiccated and takes on a dark leathery appearance. Putrefaction and insect activity may continue within the body, resulting in a skeleton within a shell of mummified skin. In extreme environments or where low temperatures inhibit microbial and insect activity, the entire remains may become desiccated, including internal organs and other soft tissues.
The progression of decomposition may further be modified by the actions of carnivorous animals. In situations where death has occurred in a confined place in the presence of pet animals, it is not uncommon for dogs and cats to consume remains. The soft tissue from the face and extremities are commonly eaten in these circumstances.
In outside environments, remains may be exposed to wild carnivores and farm animals. In such cases, in addition to consumption, remains may become disarticulated and distributed over a wide area.
Decomposition of Hard Tissue and the Fate of Skeletal Remains
Skeletonized remains are less attractive to necrophagous insects and animal scavengers and their decomposition takes place over a much longer time frame. Bacterial and plant activity continue to have a role in the breakdown of hard tissue, but other chemical and physical actions, such as weathering and abrasion, also influence this process.
Once remains are skeletalized, the substrate onto which or into which they have been deposited assumes greater importance than it did during decomposition itself. This soil pH is of critical importance, for instance, in determining skeletal element survival in burials. Unfortunately, little is known about skeletal element weathering and damage and movement outside of the studies published by archeologists and vertebrate paleontologists. These are focused on the identification of stages of sun bleaching and drying, scavenging and transport within hyena dens, fluvial transport and stream bed accumulations, and the like – variables that are, generally speaking, somewhat more relevant to prehistoric assemblages and the African environments, which were the impetus for their formulation, than to the majority of modern forensic casework scenarios. Having said that, however, C.K. Brain’s early research into the taphonomy of the karstic caves in which the bones of South African fauna and australopithecines accumulated has proved relevant to the interpretation, by Simmons in 2002, of contemporary execution site deposits of the victims of war crimes in Bosnia. The drawback to many of these studies is that the environment in the African Savannah, or Weldt, is quite dissimilar to, for example, temperate forests of North America, rain-soaked pastures in the United Kingdom and the like, and little if any research has been undertaken experimentally to catalog the progression of the processes in other environments from fresh bone through weathering. Several new studies have, however, examined color changes in bone and teeth as correlated to both UV radiation exposure and fluctuating humidity.
Diagenesis, also known as chemical weathering, is the exchange of ionic components between bone and the environment; in most cases, the soil. Once the collagen component of bone has been lost, chemical decomposition predominates and calcium ions leach into the soil in exchange for protons. Metal ions present in the soil (e.g., iron and aluminum) remove phosphate ions from the bone. The rate and degree of diagenesis are dependent on environmental factors, not least the chemical composition of the soil. Physical weathering constitutes the action of wind, sun, and wet/dry cycles. These physical forces create cracking and flaking of bone, thereby accelerating its destruction. Behrensmeyer defined six stages of bone weathering and their relationship to years since death.
Carnivore and rodent scavenging are also factors that affect bone over time. Haglund’s research concerning disarticulation patterns commonly encountered in carnivore scavenging suggests that one of the last portions of the body to become separated is the thoracic vertebrae; therefore, it has been suggested that the location of articulated thoracic vertebrae may indicate the site of original body deposition. Likewise, Haglund also studied patterns of rodent scavenging on human remains in forensic contexts. Both rodent and carnivore scavenging can occur in urban as well as rural environments, indoors and outdoors.
Stages of Decomposition
Early stage postmortem changes are often described as being early (<2 h) or late (>2 h). A number of past studies have attempted to extend and refine postmortem stages to include the more advanced decomposition and skeletonization. Using a retrospective case study of human corpses, in 2005 Megyesi et al. introduced total body score (TBS), a standardized system for scoring decomposition in a human corpse. The system assigns a score to each of the three body areas (head and neck, trunk, and limbs), the score relating to observable changes on an advancing scale from fresh to skeletonized. The sum of the three scores is the TBS. This has become the chosen method of assessing decompositional stages by forensic anthropologists, and together with earlier work conducted by Vass et al. introducing the concept of accumulated degree days (ADD), has enabled more accurate estimation of PMI in cases of advanced decomposition.
Time since Death (PMI) Estimation
One of the fundamental questions arising in any forensic case is how long the remains have been where they are found and how long the individual has been dead. Similar to the most aspects of forensic anthropology, estimating the PMI is not an exact science, but in recent years (owing to the incorporation of two key concepts: ADD and TBS), the assessment of time since death has become, at least theoretically, more straightforward.
ADD was introduced into the anthropological literature in 1992 by Vass et al., although the concept of accumulated degree hours had been part of the entomological literature for some time. Vass et al.’s paper presented an experimental study based on volatile fatty acids in the soil under human cadavers. The critical concept of ADD as a measure of the variables of time and temperature combined allowed the calculation of PMI based on ADD and body mass. The concept operates on the same principle that water will boil at 100 °C no matter if you boil it on high heat for a short period of time or low heat for a longer period of time. Whenever the water accumulates enough temperature (100 °C), it will always boil. With ADD, the concept is that every corpse should display the same characteristics (‘boil’) once it has accumulated the same temperature. No matter where geographically or in what environment, once a corpse has accumulated a certain temperature (1285 ADD according to Vass et al.) the corpse will be skeletalized. Vass et al.’s data came from examining the volatile fatty acids leaching from the corpse into the soil and the time of skeletalization was when these were no longer detectable; this of course does not equate to the appearance of a dry skeleton, rather that the corpse is no longer undergoing active (wet) decomposition. Thus, above the developmental threshold for most insects (given as 5°C), a corpse can reach 100 ADD in a myriad of different ways, for example, 5 days at 20°C, 4 days at 25°C, 10 days at 10°C, and so on. All human remains will have a similar appearance at a particular ADD no matter how many days it has taken to accumulate that temperature.
The benefit of using ADD is that it allows researchers across a variety of geographic regions and environments (e.g., with differences in temperature) to compare the rate of decomposition data. When, in the past, researchers reported that it took X many days for a corpse to decompose (or to reach a particular stage), the results were rarely analogous to the same number of days elsewhere. It is unfortunate indeed that the Vass et al. article was largely ignored by taphonomists for over 12 years, quite likely because the article was published under the pathology biology section of the Journal of Forensic Sciences and contained complex equations and chemical analyses. It was never cited in either the 1997 or the 2002 volume of Haglund and Sorg at all. Only in 2005, when Megyesi et al. published a paper introducing the concept of TBS did the utility of ADD resurface for assessing PMI and come to the attention of researchers.
The use of TBS was based on Galloway’s stages of decomposition published in 1997, but Megyesi et al. refined the descriptions associated with these stages and assigned numerical values to them, much as age-related changes in the pubic symphysis or sternal rib ends were assigned to successive phases. The underlying assumption to all of these methodologies is that one must pass through each successive stage in order to arrive at a subsequent one. Although mummification and adipocere may occur during decomposition, these are not ubiquitous features of the progression and thus may confound one’s assessment of time since death. Megyesi conducted a retrospective study of cases where the dates of disappearance (death) and recovery were known; weather station data were used to calculate average daily temperatures and determine the ADD for the interval the person had been missing. She then examined the autopsy photographs and descriptions and scored the body’s state of decomposition and assigned a TBS. A regression formula was calculated so that when TBS was known, the formula would predict the ADD. From the ADD, weather station data could be examined in order to subtract each average daily temperature backward from the date the corpse was found until the minimum and maximum dates for disappearance were computed.
As Vass et al. noted in 1992, body mass also affects the rate of decomposition and weight correction factors were provided for assessing ADD to skeletalization. Smaller corpses decompose at faster rates than larger ones, primarily due to the amount of tissue present for insects to consume. Additional studies indicated that the original categories provided (in increments of 50 lbs or 22.7 kg) were not accurate for predicting ADD from TBS and further research is needed to refine this relationship. While Megyesi et al. indicated that they could find no difference between indoor and outdoor rates of decomposition in their study, the sample size of indoor bodies was quite small. Later research by Simmons et al. in 2010 indicted that there is a statistically significant difference between insect-mediated decomposition and decomposition when insects are excluded. There is no difference, however, in the rate of decomposition with regard to the environment in which the insects are excluded from the process; whether deposited in water, a burial, or indoors, a corpse will decompose at the same, slower rate. Furthermore, the rate of decomposition in carcasses where insects are excluded remains the same regardless of body size. A formula for predicting ADD for decomposed human bodies in UK waterways was provided by Heaton et al. in 2010.
Trends in Current Research
The past 5–10 years have seen a great expansion in taphonomic research, although sadly, much of the research being conducted has still been poorly designed, for example, with sample sizes of only two to three individuals per ‘experiment,’ absence of controls and lack of standardized variable measurement (e.g., the continued use of ‘days’ rather than ADD) and hence have produced little usable data. As in reports of case studies, these remain largely anecdotal in nature and thus would be inadmissible as the basis for evidence in a court of law. There is a great need for both the accumulation of more (standardized) data at the existing decomposition facilities and for the continued testing of a variety of variables that may affect the decomposition process, whether in rate or in pattern, but these must be conducted as replicable scientific experiments with sufficient numbers of experimental and control subjects, standardized variables, measureable data, and robust statistics.
There is a continuing debate concerning the value of animal-based research and whether it is applicable to human decomposition. There are certainly pros and cons to both animal- and human-based decomposition research. Decomposition research on human cadavers benefits from direct comparisons and applicability to forensic case work. However, it is limited by the availability of donated cadavers and refrigerated storage capacity that might facilitate conducting controlled experiments. Unfortunately, none of the human decomposition facilities has actually conducted and/or published any experiments involving sufficient numbers of experimental and control individuals, and in truth, very little published hard (more than purely descriptive) data have been forthcoming from these facilities. Although data for forensic casework should ideally be based on human analogs, what has been published on human decomposition cannot, thus far, provide a statistical basis for deriving a probability of occurrence, and hence, would not be acceptable in court given the new rules of evidence and expert testimony.
Decomposition research using animal models (namely, Sus scrofa, the domestic pig) obviously suffers from using subjects that are not directly analogous to human forensic cases and, though skin, an omnivorous diet and gut construction are indeed similar to those of humans, the limb proportions, bone lengths, head shape, and so on, are not, thus making it hard to draw relevant conclusions with direct correspondence to the human form. On the other hand, animal models allow for the employment of a far greater sample size incorporating sufficient controls and experimental subjects from which to reach statistically sound conclusions. Using animals allows for the repetition, replication, and validation of results. One can also conduct studies on the animal subjects, which one might not receive permission to conduct on donated human cadavers (e.g., inflict and study a variety of traumatic insults – gunshots, burning, etc. – upon them). Both types of research are subject to similar, stringent ethical review, and in the case of animals, one must be compliant with the guiding principles of reduction, refinement, and replacement.
Trends in future research need to take taphonomic studies beyond observations and descriptions and the subjective. Taphonomic researchers should fully explore the decomposition ‘myths’ regarding what does or does not influence decomposition rate and pattern, and researchers must do so using both standardized methods of scoring decomposition and ADD to allow the comparison of results over disparate chronology, geography, and environment. Further systematic experimental research regarding weathering and bone diagenesis is also warranted in order to extend and refine PMI estimates beyond decomposition and into taphonomic intervals where skeletal elements alone persist. Equipment such as weather stations, thermocouples and data loggers (internal), thermal imaging cameras, time-lapse photography, endoscopes to visualize decomposition internally, and so on, should also aid in elevating taphonomic research from the merely descriptive to higher scientific standard, reliability, and admissibility in court.
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