Applied Anthropology

What is a body farm?
Answered by Cassie Rodenberg and HowStuffWorks
  • Cassie Rodenberg

    Cassie Rodenberg

  • HowStuffWorks

    HowStuffWorks

  1. Cassie Rodenberg Producer, TreeHugger

    A body farm is a unique sort of crime lab where experts evaluate decomposing bodies in various conditions. By studying decomposing bodies, scientists can better evaluate the timing and circumstances of bodies found in real-life crimes. Forensic experts place bodies in various conditions (such as extreme heat or cold; on concrete or grass; etc.) for different lengths of time and keep record of how the bodies decompose and what insect activity accompanies decomposition. With this information, law enforcement and forensic investigators can form a conclusion on how and when a person in the real world might have died.

    A forensic anthropologist started the first body farm in 1981 in Knoxville, Tennessee because no site existed that specifically studied human decomposition.  Now, volunteers can choose to donate their bodies to this study of human decomposition and to a body farm to advance the field of criminal forensic investigations. The University of Tennessee body farm receives about 100 donated bodies per year and has about 650 donated bodies in its collection. This 2.5-acre facility was the first of several similar research facilities across the U.S. Now, similar facilities exist in North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania.


    Body Farm 4
    At body farms, corpses are assigned to particular spots and left to decompose. Forensic anthropology students study how environment affects the corpses and their rate of decomposition. (iStockphoto/ranplett)

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  2. A body farm is a facility designed to help scientists study the natural decomposition of a human body as well as how different circumstances affect the process of decay. Researchers studying at a body farm also learn how to preserve the chain of evidence in a criminal investigation. It's extremely important to document any and all contact with human remains so that no legal questions can be raised concerning the integrity of any evidence. Body farms vary in size and in focus. The facility at the University of Texas-San Marcos is about 5 acres in size and focuses on decomposition in desert areas, whereas Western Carolina University's facility covers only about 59 square feet (18 square meters) and focuses on decomposition in mountainous areas.

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