Forensic taphonomy is a new, emerging field, which originated as a subfield of forensic anthropology. The word ‘taphonomy’ derives from ancient Greek, where ‘tapho’ is ‘burial’ and ‘nomos’ is ‘laws’, so it is the study of the laws of burial. It emerged as a science in the 1940s, as a support for paleontology to explain how and why animals become preserved and fossilized in their environment. Due to this need, taphonomy expanded as the study of processes which affect decomposition, fossilization, burial and erosion; so far so good, but what has this got to do with forensics? Well, forensic taphonomy investigates the factors which decompose the bodies and alter evidence which is subject to a medico-legal investigation. Currently, the two major branches of forensic taphonomy are biotaphonomy and geotaphonomy.
Biotaphonomy analyzes the remains themselves, to see how they have been affected and what processes they have undergone. It has to find out how decomposition, destruction, or the lack of these two came to be. The main factors which intervene in this analysis have been classified into three categories:
- Individual factors; these are the factors of the body itself, such as age, body size, etc.
- Environmental factors; these are the external variables which have to be taken into consideration. They two can be classified into two categories: biotic (living factors) and abiotic.
- Cultural factors; these are more specific factors which generally refer to activities which characterize the human mortuaries.
Geotaphonomy analyzes how the buried body affects the surrounding environment, in shallow geological and botanical terms. There are several areas of interest here:
- The disturbance of soil, such as mixing of the layers, compaction or aeration or any other disturbance.
- Footprints or any other type of prints on the bottom of the grave.
- Alteration of erosion or of natural water flow.
- Acceleration or retardation of the growth of surrounding plants.
- Alteration of the soil’s pH.
- Tool marks on the walls or in the soil.
So, what’s the utility of forensic taphonomy? The main purpose is to create a taphonomic profile, accurately describing the perimortem and postmortem evolution of the body. This concept generally revolves around the circumstances of death, which include: time of death, location, assailant or victim details, original position, etc.
There are three main interactions which work together, as I already said: the environment, the individual and the surrounding and cultural factors, but these are mostly subtle and hard to track, so being a forensic taphonomist is no easy job, and there is nothing that can prepare you from A to Z in this field, as it requires a sum of related knowledge from various fields. But anyway, it’s not a job for everybody – forensic taphonomists are known to have a strong stomach.