Research underway at the University of Technology, Sydney’s AFTER facility is yielding some surprising new findings about how bodies decompose in the Australian bush. Supplied by UTS, Author provided (No reuse)

‘This is going to affect how we determine time since death’: how studying body donors in the bush is changing forensic science

‘This is going to affect how we determine time since death’: how studying body donors in the bush is changing forensic science. The Conversation, CC BY77.2 MB (download)

On the outskirts of Sydney, in a secret bushland location, lies what’s officially known as the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER). In books and movies, it’d be called a body farm.

Maiken Ueland at the AFTER facility run by UTS. Supplied by UTS, Author provided

Taphonomy is the study of how an organism breaks down after death. Research underway at the University of Technology Sydney’s AFTER facility is yielding some surprising new findings about how bodies decompose in the Australian bush.

And here’s an astonishing detail: until AFTER opened in Sydney in 2016, there was no facility like it in the southern hemisphere. Most of the world’s taphonomic research came from the US, meaning we were missing vital clues relating to how Australian weather, bugs and climate conditions affect the way a human body decomposes in the bush.

Today on our podcast, Trust Me, I’m An Expert, we take you on a journey to AFTER. The facility’s interim director, Maiken Ueland, and PhD student Samara Garrett-Rickman share with us:

  • some of the unexpected findings emerging from AFTER on determining time since death;
  • why AFTER researchers prefer not to use the term “body farm”;
  • how the stages of decomposition work
  • a process of “mummification” that research suggests may be unique to Australian bushland conditions;
  • what the TV shows get wrong about forensic science;
  • why it’s harder to bury a body than most people think;
  • what investigators look for to spot a clandestine grave;

And if you’re interested in finding out more about how to donate your body for such research, you can start here.

Looking for odours at the AFTER facility, run by UTS. Anna Zhu, Author provided (No reuse)

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Additional audio

Kindergarten by Unkle Ho, from Elefant Traks.

Backyard by David Szesztay from Free Music Archive

Images

UTS/Anna Zhu