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Skeleton

Theh Body Farm
Murder investigators have long known that corpses feed an ever-changing army of insects. Now a growing body of entomological research is helping them solve more crimes.

by Pearl Tesler

Modern forensic entomology was born—hatched, really—on a wooded hillside in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, on a few acres known as the Body Farm, human corpses decay alfresco in the name of science.
Forensic anthropologist William Bass III founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee in 1971. Since then, hundreds of human carcasses have been put out to pasture there. At any given time, there are forty or so "guests" putrefying on the premises, some in car trunks, some in the shade, some in the sun, some underground.

As nature does its work, each wave of insects and waft of gases is carefully noted. The changing cast of characters is predictable, but factors like the season, the weather, and the location of the body affect what happens. The data collected help law enforcement agencies around the world gather and interpret clues.

SkullThe only facility of its kind, the Body Farm was born of necessity. While entomological evidence is often the only way to establish the time of death in murder cases, squeamishness and cultural taboos had led to a void of research on the topic. The need for closer study became apparent to Bass when local police asked him to estimate the age of an unearthed corpse. Flesh still on the bones led Bass to believe the corpse was one year old. However, the body turned out to be that of a Confederate soldier, dead for over a hundred years.

Now, thanks to three decades of rotten work, Bass and his colleagues have unparalleled expertise in the field of decay. In fact, for the last several years, the FBI has made a trip to the Body Farm a part of basic training for a select group of agents.

Bodies for the Farm come from various sources, including unclaimed corpses from medical examiners’ offices and prisons. A fence topped with razor wire keeps uninvited visitors out, but there is another way to get into the Body Farm. Thanks to growing publicity, hundreds of people—outdoor types—have willed their bodies to the facility.

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This story originally appeared in the Insects issue of the "Exploratorium Magazine."

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