Thursday 8 January 2015

Australian Human Taphonomy Facility

Happy New Year, lovely readers. I am sorry that I haven't posted since September - no excuse really, just very busy, as usual.

I want to draw your attention, if you're not already aware, to the recent establishment of a Human Taphonomy Facility (colloquially known as a "Body Farm") in Australia.

The idea of "body farms" or outdoor decomposition laboratories for human taphonomy research is not new. There are currently seven such facilities in the United States, and another one newly commissioned. One of the reasons for so many is that decomposition processes are heavily influenced by the surrounding temperature, humidity, species of insect and other environmental conditions, and so forensic scientists need to know how bodies decompose in their region's own particular conditions. This means that the data produced by US facilities is not always relevant or useful for other climates and countries.

The 12 acre facility, called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), has been created in bush land in the Blue Mountains area outside Sydney, and is intended to aid research into the impact of the Australian climate, fauna and insects on the processes of decomposition. This will prove invaluable for identification of unknown human remains, whether they are victims of homicide, misadventure or disaster.

The initiative has been headed by Professor Shari Forbes from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and funded by a Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) grant. It is a multidisciplinary, collaborative project that unites law enforcement organisations, forensic services and academic institutions. Partners include the Victorian Institute of Forensic MedicineUniversity of WollongongUniversity of SydneyUniversity of CanberraUniversity of New EnglandAustralian National University, as well as Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police, New South Wales Police Department and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

The terrain and vegetation are typical of areas commonly searched for human remains, and so it is a good mimic for a crime scene environment. Donated human cadavers will be used for the research, as there is no perfect substitute or analogue for human tissue, body composition and gut bacteria. Shari's research also uses pig cadavers (as we do in the UK at the moment), in order to determine how reliable pigs are as an analogue.

"At the moment, we're still not sure that pigs are the best model," she says, "and this will actually help prove or disprove whether or not pigs can be used as a model of [human] decomposition".

As a result, her research may have dramatic consequences for current forensic taphonomy research in the UK and Europe.

The facility will be used not only to push the boundaries of our knowledge of forensic science, including decomposition chemistry, forensic biology, toxicology, entomology and anthropology; but will also contribute significantly to our understanding of archaeological and geological processes, palaeontology, and soil science.

Personally, I hope that this initiative in Australia will pave the way for acceptance of such a facility among academics, forensic services, government organisations and the public in the UK. I strongly believe that a similar facility is necessary in the UK, as our climate, flora and fauna and environmental conditions vary significantly from the other body farm locations in the US and Australia, and without one, we will not fully understand the complex processes of decomposition and the interaction between human cadavers and the environment.

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