Death as Life: Guardian Article on the Science of Human Decomposition

6 May

The former neuroscientist and current science journalist Mo Costandi has a new article in The Guardian titled Life After Death: The Science of Human Decomposition.  It is well worth a read for those interested in how the body changes and starts to break down immediately following death, with new insights into the ecology of death itself.  It is well-known that, as the body goes through the initial death and decomposition stages towards skeletonization, it plays host to a wide range of insect life.  However it is only really in the past few years that the study of the so-called thanatomicrobiome has really blossomed, particularly with the rise of the ‘body farms’ across the world where human remains can be scientifically studied and sampled in-situ, in a variety of both buried or non-buried contexts which mimic where bodies are found (Can et al. 2014).  (Although sadly the United Kingdom still lacks a human body farm, there is an animal body farm at Glywndr University in Wales, created by forensic scientists at the university to study taphonomic change in non-human corpses).

There are obvious applications in understanding the mechanisms of the thanatomicrobiome and of the ecology present, particularly with the application of the methods in the forensic sciences in helping to pinpoint the time of death of an individual.  As Costandi demonstrates in his remarkable article the human body can be a veritable oasis of life in death, playing host to many species of insect life – this is particularly fascinating for forensic entomologists and anthropologists, but also to bioarchaeologists who work in conditions where the remains, and life stage, of insects can be identified and placed within a certain cycle of decomposition stage, if found within the context of a body.

It is also particularly interesting for those who study bioarchaeology as it highlights the differentiation found not just between bodies in the act of decomposition but also throughout the same body itself, and how this can change due to body location and environment.  This is highlighted by the observations of certain insects at unexpected places, perhaps taking actions that one would not expect – that is very important for the forensic sciences and bioarchaeological sciences as it can determine the theorised location of the body and if the body has moved after death took place but before retrieval (Lindgren et al. 2015).  The action of the gut microbiome also plays a key role in the decomposition of the body as it aids greatly in the decomposition of the body as whole during the biomolecular breakdown of the bodies numerous and varied cells.  The composition of it can also vary from person to person.  The understanding of the decomposition stages and of the taphonomic sequences in the forensic or archaeological record is thus vital to understanding the context of the body itself; whether this helps to identify if the individual underwent a funerary ritual and/or mortuary processing or to identifying whether the individual was buried in a clandestine or a non-normative manner.

Further Information

  • Mo Costandi’s article for the Guardian newspaper can be read here.

Bibliography

Can, I., Javan, G. T., Pozhitkov, A. E. & Noble, P. A. 2014. Distinctive Thanatomicrobiome Signatures Found in the Blood and Internal Organs of Humans. Journal of Microbiological Methods. 106: 1-7.

Lindgren, N. K., Sisson, M. S., Archambeault, A. D., Rahlwes, B. C., Willets, J. R. & Bucheli, S. R. 2015. Four Forensic Entomology Case Studies: Records and Behavioral Observations on Seldom Reported Cadaver Fauna with Notes on Relevant Previous Occurrences and Ecology. Journal of Medical Entomology. 52 (2): 143-150.

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