From Mummies to Grave Wax – The Preservation of Human Cadavers

From Mummies to Grave Wax – The Preservation of Human Cadavers

Warning: Graphic images included.

When we envisage the decomposition of a corpse, the images that probably come to mind are of a rapidly-decayed, foul-smelling body quickly turning to sludge and bones. But there are actually other pathways a body can take following death, some of which can be of great importance in a forensic investigation. I’m namely talking about mummification and adipocere.

Mummification

Thanks to the Ancient Egyptians, we all know about mummification, a particular process of body preservation. When these guys mummified their dead, this routine typically involved the removal of the internal organs, most notably the brain, which was pulled out through the nostrils. Finally, the body would be wrapped in linens and salt and left to dry. The end result would be a remarkably well-preserved body displaying features that would have usually been lost to decomposition.

Aside from this especially famous post-mortem ritual, there are actually a number of ways by which a body can become mummified. For instance, more modern intentional mummification would utilise chemicals to preserve the body. But how can mummification occur naturally, and what are the implications of this in a forensic investigation?

The natural preservation of a cadaver is highly dependent on the surrounding environment, with only very specific conditions causing the body to mummify. A range of factors can play a part in this phenomenon, including temperature, humidity and the action of bacteria and other microorganisms.

In hot, dry climates moisture can evaporate from the skin at such an accelerated rate that the process of mummification can occur. As the skin is rapidly dehydrated, it often takes on a dark and leathery appearance. The internal organs may be preserved to an extent, though will typically undergo some level of decomposition so are at least likely to be smaller in size. Hot, dry climates can also hinder bacterial growth, limiting the bacterial decay and further preserving the body. Hot, sandy deserts are perhaps amongst the first scenarios that come to mind when considering mummification, but mummified remains have also be discovered in attics, basements, and even within the walls of buildings.

Conversely, especially cold and dry environments can also bring about mummification. The cold temperatures can significantly slow microorganism activity, once again reducing the rate of decomposition and aiding in preservation. A famous example of this is the natural mummy Otzi the Ice Man, believed to have died thousands of years ago but preserved through mummification induced by extremely cold temperatures.

mumm1

Mummifying conditions are not limited to temperature-based factors. Environments of extreme salinity (salt content) can preserve cadavers. The majority of bacteria cannot survive in highly salty conditions, thus severely reducing microbial action on the body. Furthermore salt itself acts as a desiccant on the soft tissue, dehydrating the body and drawing out water much as high temperatures would. An example of this type of mummification was experienced in Iran, where a number of mummies were found in the Chehrabad salt mines.

Mummified remains have also been found in bogs or marshland, in which the excess water, organic material and anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment prevents a great deal of bacterial action, thus preserving the body. This is something of a contrast to the typical hot, arid conditions mostly associated with mummified remains, but bogs with particularly acidic water, low temperatures and a lack of oxygen can essentially pickle a body. Thousands of these “bog bodies” have been recovered over the years, perhaps the most famous being the Lindow Man, determined to be the victim of a prehistoric ritual killing.

The conditions described may not necessarily induce mummification throughout the entire cadaver, but in some cases may cause localised mummification, if only particular areas of the body are exposed to these conditions. Mummification most often occurs in the face, scalp, chest and back, but typically begins in the extremities such as the fingers and toes.

Adipocere

Another phenomenon that can assist in preservation of a cadaver is the formation of adipocere. Known as “grave wax”, this is a soapy, white or grey wax composed primarily of saturated fatty acids such as palmitic and stearic acid formed through the hydrolysis and hydrogentation of body fats (Forbes et al, 2005). Numerous theories have been put forward to suggest how adipocere forms, namely the saponification, hydrogenation and fat migration theories.

A cadaver presenting adipocere. Credit: Kumar et al, 2009

The type of environment required for adipocere formation is somewhat different from that suitable for mummification. It is often encountered in especially humid graves with little or no air access, thus oxygen-poor, such as a bog or certain bodies of water. The formation of adipocere can take weeks if not years to form depending on the climatic conditions, the rate at which it forms being further affected by the environment and circumstances surrounding the cadaver. Depending on the extent to which it forms, adipocere can produce a waxy layer across the body and act as a barrier against the usual process of decomposition, providing significant protection over time as adipocere itself is fairly resistant to decay.

So these are some of the alternative routes of decay a body can take post-mortem. But what does this mean to the forensic scientist?

In some cases, the occurrence of mummification or adipocere formation can be of assistance to a forensic investigation, as it may be possible that certain aspects of the deceased person’s appearance and even any injuries they might have acquired will be preserved. Mummified tissues can even be rehydrated to aid in visualising injuries and other distinguishing marks. Similarly, the formation of adipocere can preserve tissues and organs along with recognisable facial characteristics. This can in theory aid in identification if the victim is unknown or even determining cause of death.

Furthermore, just as the stage of decomposition of a body can roughly indicate the post-mortem interval (time since death), mummification and adipocere can provide some indication in that a certain amount of time is required for mummification to occur. Approximately 6-12 months are required for the natural mummification of an adult, with a child’s body requiring less time to become mummified (Gitto et al, 2015), though in some cases mummification has been reported in a matter of weeks or even days (Sledzik and Micozzi, 1997). Of course these time periods can vary widely depending on climatic conditions and a number of other factors, but they may provide assistance nonetheless. To an extent it may be possible to determine the rough age of the remains based on the weight of the mummified cadaver, as more recent bodies will be heavier than those which are older and have lost a greater proportion of water content.

So given the right conditions, processes such as mummification and adipocere formation can interestingly be a great aid to the forensic investigator.

References

Bereuter, M. T. L. Lorbeer, E. Reiter, C. Seidler, H. Unterdorfer, H. Post-morten alterations of human lipids – part I: evaluation of adipocere formation and mummification by desiccation. Human Mummies. 3 (1996), pp. 265-273.

Bryd, J. H. Castner, J. L. 2010. Forensic Entomology: The Utility of Arthropods in Legal Investigations. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Forbes, S. L. Bent, B. B. Stuart, H. The effect of soil type on adipocere formation. For Sci Int. 154 (2005), pp. 35-43.

Gitto, L. Bonaccorso, L. Maiese, A. dell’Aquila, M. Arena, V. Bolino, G. A scream from the past: A multidisciplinary approach in a concealment of a corpse found mummified. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. 32 (2015), pp. 53-58.

Kumar, T. S. M. et al. Early adipocere formation: A case report and review of literature. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. 16 (2009), pp. 475-477.

Rich, J. Dead, D. E. Powers, R. H. 2005. Forensic Medicine of the Lower Extremity. Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press Inc.

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Geochemistry and Clandestine Graves

Geochemistry and Clandestine Graves

Perpetrators of fatal crimes will on occasion attempt to conceal their wrongdoings by burying the evidence – that is, attempting to bury human cadavers. This can be problematic during a forensic investigation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the search for a victim’s body may well be relatively blind, with investigators having little or no idea as to where a body has been buried. In some instances, a body may well be so damaged or decomposed that little recognisable human remains are present. The perpetrator may later remove the body from the burial site, perhaps fearing discovery, leaving behind no obvious trace that a body was ever buried there.

So what can investigators do to determine if an area of soil was the site of a clandestine grave (illicit burial site)? A number of methods that have been developed to tackle this question.

grave

Certain chemical compounds may be indicative of decomposing flesh. Sterols have been suggested as a potential biomarker for decomposition fluids – that is, the presence of them in soil could indicate whether or not a body has decomposed in that location, depending on the types of sterols present and in what amounts. Sterols are a class of organic compound, of which cholesterol is perhaps the most well-known sterol present in animal cells. This compound can be found in plants too, but in a significantly smaller amount, thus the unexpected presence of cholesterol in soil will typically indicate some kind of animal-related activity. Research examining the decomposition fluids in soils found sterols to be beneficial in this application (Von der Luhe et al, 2013). A number of pig carcasses were buried over a few months, with soil samples being collected from underneath the cadavers at different time points after burial. Cholesterol and coprostanol were detected in the soil, and it is these substances that were of particular interest to the researchers. Coprostanol is formed via hydrogenation of cholesterol in the intestinal tract of higher mammals, thus it is considered a useful biomarker associated with the faecal matter of animals such as humans and pigs. The concentration of these compounds was greater during the time period in which the pigs were undergoing the putrefaction stage of decomposition, at which point fluids would be leeching into the soil. This suggests a certain time frame in which these compounds are useful as indicators of decomposition fluids.

chol

Cholesterol

The research suggested that, as the cadaver decomposes, decomposition fluids leak into the soil, depositing cholesterol and coprostanol (and a whole range of other substances). Thus the presence of these compounds in a particular area of soil, particularly if nearby similar areas did not contain them, could indicate previous decomposition of a human (or equally a pig or other animal) in the area. However it is vital to note that these compounds could equally be detected in the soil as a result of faecal matter, though potentially in considerably lower concentrations than those produced by a whole decomposing body.

Other compounds resulting from decomposition are of equal interest in detecting potential gravesites. Adipocere, also known as grave wax, is an insoluble, white substance known to form if a body decomposes in very specific conditions. The presence of this substance in soil can of course indicate the decomposition of a body, but how does one distinguish between the decomposition fluids of a human and those of another mammal? Research has aimed to answer this question using isotopes (Bull et al, 2009). By focusing on the ratio of 13C to 12C content of particular fatty acids from the fats of various animals, it was suggested that it is possible to distinguish between adipose fats from humans and those from other animals, such as pigs, though further work may be required to develop this application.

Other researchers are applying existing forensic techniques in a novel manner to the detection of clandestine graves. When the body decomposes, a significant amount of nitrogen is released, typically in the form of ammonium and nitrate (Hopkins et al, 2000). Ninhydrin, a compound already readily available to law enforcement due to its use as a method of fingerprint development, can produce a blue or purple pigment upon reaction with certain nitrogen-containing compounds.

nin

Ninhydrin is typically used for visualising fingerprints (http://daten.didaktikchemie.uni-bayreuth.de)

One particular study examining ninhydrin reactive nitrogen (Carter at al, 2008) left a number of mammalian cadavers to decay over a period of a month, after which soil samples from the burial sites were collected and analysed for ninhydrin reactive nitrogen. This work discovered that cadaver burial resulted in the concentration of NRN in the soil approximately doubling, thus concluding that it may be possible to use ninhydrin as a presumptive test for gravesoil. Of course this particular method is somewhat limited by the fact that any mammalian cadaver (and plants or faeces for that matter) will most likely produce this increase in nitrogen-containing compounds which will react with ninhydrin, but an interesting application of an existing indicator nonetheless.

The various methods of using the chemical analysis of soil to detect clandestine graves are plentiful and fascinating. Despite the limitations, namely the possibility of animal faeces and non-human decomposition providing false positive results, these techniques may at the very least act as a kind of presumptive or complimentary test for possible burial sites.

References

Von der Luhe, B. Dawson, L. A. Mayes, R. W. Forbes, S. L. Fiedler, S. Investigation of sterols as potential biomarkers for the detection of pig (S. s. domesticus) decomposition fluid in soils. Forensic Sci Int. 230 (2013), pp. 68-73.

Bull, I. D. Berstan, R. Vass, A. Evershed, R. P. Identification of a disinterred grave by molecular and stable isotope analysis. Sci Justice. 49 (2009), pp. 142-149.

Carter, D. O. Yellowless, D. Tibbett, M. Using ninhydrin to detect gravesoil. J Forensic Sci. 53 (2008), pp. 397-400.