Learning to solve crime at the body farm

Body farms helps investigators study human decomposition.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Crime happens everywhere, from the Valley of the Sun to every major city and small corner of the country.

Solving those crimes can be tedious and take months, even years. But there is a place helping investigators with their job: A forensic anthropology center known known as the body farm.

“The entire area is a little under three acres, but at any one time we have about 150 to 200 donors, " said Dawnie Steadman, the director of the forensic anthropology center.

By donors, Steadman means the dead bodies that are decomposing in various conditions.

“The purpose of this facility is to study human decomposition," Steadman said.

The "how"s and and maybe more importantly – the "how long" of a decomposing corpse in nature.

“I think death is a cultural taboo. That’s why people crowd on the other side of a crime scene tape. And here, we are the other side of that tape," says Steadman.

These donors are placed to mimic real crimes, whereas scientists expose some to the elements of the surface.

Others are buried underground, giving researchers important information about how long similar burials might take to decompose.

“We bring in law enforcement from all around the world to do trainings on body recoveries," Steadman said. 

The hot and humid conditions they see in Knoxville can cause a body to turn to bones in as little as a month in some cases. But it’s a little different in the desert, where oftentimes a body will mummify in our hot and dry conditions. This makes it more difficult to come up with a timeline.

“Because we don’t know how long it took to get to that state and certainly don’t know how long it’s been in that state.”

And even after more than three decades of research at the body farm, there is still so much to learn.

“We’re still trying to figure out why, if we place multiple donors at the same time, why don’t they decompose the same way," Steadman said.

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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