Roger writing the LAWmag
May 2012

Forensic Anthropology: Justice By Maggot

Forensic medicine is omnipresent in the law, determining paternity in family law claims, establishing death in absent person cases, and especially in identifying bodies and the methods of crime and murders.

Like magic, one such specialty, forensic anthropology (see Legal Definition of Forensic Anthropology), reveals conclusive evidence where none is visible to the naked eye. Valuable to civil litigation, this new science is gradually invading the halls of criminal justice especially for the investigation of the most heinous of crimes, homicide.

There is no app for that and if there were, it would issue from the Forensic Anthropology Center ( at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In fact, they are working on a device that can take an air sample near a corpse and based on the odor, estimate the time of death! All on a hand-held device.

The strong smell of a decaying body is a factor of putrescine and cadaverine. It is what cadaver dogs are trained to seek. The odorous imprint of cadaverine and putrescine is so stubborn that it lingers on at the location of a corpse for months after the corpse has been moved.

You don't want to visit FAC except on a need-to-know basis and, of course, maybe on Halloween. If there ever was a place to not accidentally stumble into if lost in Knoxville, this is it.

What they do at the FAC is forensic anthropology, defined as the identification of human remains in the legal context, but which could be shortened to the study of human decay.

"Anthropologists are interested in culture (cultural anthropologists), language (linguistic anthropologists), the physical remains or artifacts left behind by human occupation (archaeologists), and human remains or bones and teeth (physical anthropologists).....

"Forensic anthropology is the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of unidentified bones."1

Opened in 1987, the centre doubles as a teaching centre, but is mostly known as a world-renowned centre for forensic science, the real thing of which Hollywood shows abound, such as NBC's Law and Order and CBS's C.S.I. (which stands for "crime scene investigation").

The FAC brochure says that the staff conduct:

"... human identification and skeletal analysis (including) field recovery, analysis of remains or time since death consultations. Forensic anthropology investigations typically involve trauma, time since death or skeletal pathology."

In common parlance, the Center studies corpses for gunshot wounds, sharp force injuries, blunt force trauma, dental identification, trauma and the like.

Nothing to be grossed out about until those curious words appear in the FAC brochure: something about an "ideal setting to scientifically document postmortem change."

The FAC has over 900 real human skeletons - all used to study and advance forensic anthropology. The Center actively seeks body donations - but only dead bodies need apply.

The Center itself is in a discreet, fenced-off location tucked behind the U of T Medical Center, in Knoxville. The security is one-sided though since most of those people inside aren't going anywhere. They're all dead.

And as for thieves sneaking in, one whiff of that putrescine and cadaverine cocktail takes care of that.

Yet each dead somebody at FAC is a star in their own right, each with a specific role to play in some imagined crime-like death selected and designed by FAC staff. Some are left to rot in open air, others rotting in plastic bags, metal trunks or pools of water, some buried, others wrapped inside of a concrete shell. And not just left there but examined regularly and the state of decay duly noted.

The naked specimens are abuzz with flies, maggots and beetles, not to mention the overwhelming smell of decomposing human remains, but to the staff it's all in a day's work. Grotesque may be an apt description to the uninitiated but not to FAC staff. They eventually learn to blank out the very human face of their specimens. But not surprisingly, the FAC does not provide tours of the outdoor facility.

The ground around each corpse is essential to the science as it contains a record of chemicals released by the body helpful, for example, in determining if the body has been moved since death.

In Forensic Anthropology 101, the student is taught that time-of-death can be determined by the potassium level of the gel inside the eyes, or the temperature of the body, which cools at a constant rate from the moment of death, to room temperature. The Coles Notes on that: the body loses about 1.5º F. per hour. In the first 12 hours after death, this is the primary source of time-of-death information. Of course, this is as much art as it is science since so many variables can tweak this factor on time-of-death such as clothing on the decedent and the temperature where the death occurred or the body was stored.

Hollywood fiction aside, one source of information that has been discarded is the reliance on stomach contents. Scientists have decided that this process is so variable as to have little worth as a forensic tool.2

maggotsOther areas in the forensic anthropology toolbox: algor mortis (the Latin-medical term for the cooling of a dead body), and rigor mortis (the stiffening). Rigor mortis takes a few hours to start and generally progresses from the head down, and typically seizes the whole body after about 12 hours. Rigor mortis lasts until the 36-hour mark, again all time-frames approximate but again, the things forensic anthropologists look for.

The FAC's main innovation has been to develop and constantly refine standards of chemical changes in organs which start to putrefy at death. By measuring these changes in controlled circumstances with donor bodies, the standards can be tested and used in the field with real crime victims, to establish the time-of-death, an essential piece of evidence in homicide investigations. Once putrefaction sets in, rigor mortis is generally gone but it can be delayed by cold temperatures or the immersion of the body in some body of water.

There is another predictable feature of change caused by death. The skin will bloat and even peel from the body in spots (TMI - sorry). Caught by the watertight skin, this liquid will start to rot and the natural bacteria in the body, no longer fed by the host, feeds off the host body. Bacteria growth then goes off the chart and the body starts to bloat, mostly in the abdomen, lips and noses and, in males, the genitalia, as the bacteria produces liquid (cadaverine) and gas.

After 72 hours, insects start to invade the body. The age of these insects, such as fly larvae, can assist investigators in determining the approximate time of death. Flies are quick to invade opening such as nostrils, ears, the mouth and wounds and drop off their babies in larvae state.

A fly starts off life as a larvae, known to man as a disgusting little whitish worm, the maggot. The maggot is nature's dead-body cleaner, the ultimate organic recycling machine. Most of them can't penetrate the skin so they march in through a natural opening such as the mouth.

Their favourite is body fat, which they congregate on first in a feeding orgy.

Maggots are larger in bodies that have been dead for longer, which can assist in determining time of death.

Surface insects eventually arrive on the scene like vultures or hyenas, attracted by the putrescine, to finish from the outside, what the maggots started on the inside. The very strong smell, putrescine, also hollers for beetles who arrive in legions to eat the tougher flesh, such as muscle and ligaments.

Meanwhile, the bloat balloons slowly for about a week, continuing until the corpse ruptures somewhere and releases both gas and cadaverine.

As days turn into weeks and nature's undertakers undertake their work, the corpse sinks into itself and flattens as it is stripped of its contents by an army of insects and rot, a process known as putrefaction. After three weeks, specific organs can no longer be identified, another discovery which helps in determining a time-of-death. The last to go are the bones - much depending on the proximity of animals or insects. The bones of some humans have lasted thousands of years if preserved in inaccessible, dry and cold conditions.

All of this trial and error knowledge amassed by forensic anthropologists is made available to crime scene investigators to collect solid, scientific evidence for the purposes of law and justice.

Almost all forensic anthopology theories are ultimately challenged in Court.2 Over time, the package of tools is refined and perfected.

It's all enough to make the squeamish ... well, squeam but to law and justice, the FAC and forensic anthropology are vital to the identification of the true cause of otherwise unsolvable homicides, and of the perpetrators, without which, these clever or lucky killers  would walk among us unscathed, unpunished and able to strike again with impunity.


  • American Board of Forensic Anthropology
  • Bruce, M. S. and others, Forensic Medicine for Lawyers (London: Buterworths, 2001), pages 58-69. NOTE 2: "The emptying of the stomach as a means of estimating the time of death has led to many famous forensic duels in the witness box - and probably also to some miscarriages of justice in reported cases...."
  • NOTE 1: Forensic Anthropology Center, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (
  • Roach, Mary, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (New York: Norton & Company, 1994)

Posted in Crime and Criminal Law

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