Inside The World's Largest Body Farm
Seven miles northwest of San Marcos, Texas, 50 or so naked human bodies in varying stages of decomposition are strewn about in a 16-acre field.
Some are fully mummified, their flesh dried out by the harsh Texas sun. Others have been picked over so voraciously by vultures that their bones are frayed. The most lurid are the fresh ones: week-old bodies that have ballooned to twice their normal size and crawl with thousands of maggots.
This operation, at a place called Freeman Ranch, is part of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Colloquially, facilities like these — this is the largest of six worldwide, all in the US — are simply called body farms.
The bodies are donated and left out in the elements as part of research aimed at better understanding the process of decomposition, mainly to assist in criminal investigations. When an unidentified body turns up, the first question police typically ask is how long ago the person died — and the observations made at body farms have been crucial in allowing them to answer it. Researchers at Freeman Ranch are also using their knowledge of decay to help identify the bodies of hundreds of people who die of dehydration or heat stroke every year after they cross the border into Texas.
"What we really want to figure out is, at a basic level, how decomposition works," says Daniel Wescott, an anthropology professor at Texas State and the director of the body farm. "There's a whole little ecosystem going on right here." He gestures towards one body, with a leathery face that's stiffened into an opened-mouth yowl. "And we want to understand every part of it."
The first known study of human decomposition is Washing Away of Wrongs by a Chinese judge named Song Ci. It's a 13th-century treatise on basic autopsy principles: how to examine the body and determine the cause of death, for instance. This work was eventually followed by a series of European scientists who exhumed bodies in the 1800s and first observed the specific stages of decomposition that a body experiences as it decays.
"What we really want to figure out is, at a basic level, how decomposition works"These studies made broad generalizations on decomposition based on just a few bodies. Through the 1970s, forensic scientists still largely relied on research involving pig carcasses when consulting on criminal cases and attempting to determine the all-important post-mortem interval — the time between when a person dies and when his or her body is found. No one had ever watched a human body decay in a controlled setting firsthand.
That changed in 1980 at the University of Tennessee, where the anthropologist William Bass founded the first body farm. Bass got the idea after being called on to help police in a local murder case: they'd found a disturbed Civil War-era grave and suspected that the body in it was a recent one, swapped in by the suspect to conceal the evidence. Bass analyzed the body's clothing and other factors and found that wasn't the case. But he was troubled by our incomplete knowledge of human decomposition.
So he started collecting bodies. The very first one — a 73-year-old man who'd died of heart disease — was left to decay at an abandoned farm that had been donated to the university, just outside the town of Knoxville. Eventually, Bass and his students fenced in a 1.3-acre patch of woods on the property and began studying multiple bodies at once. Over the years, researchers at the Tennessee body farm (a group that would include both Wescott and Kate Spradley, another current professor at the Texas body farm) processed more than 650 bodies, legitimized the study of human decomposition, and established much of what we now know about it.