Soil-cadaver interactions in a burial environment

Kathryn Stokes

    Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

    91 Downloads (Pure)


    Forensic taphonomy is concerned with investigation of graves and grave sites. The primary aim of forensic taphonomy is development of accurate estimations of postmortem interval (PMI) and/or postburial interval (PBI). Soil has previously been largely ignored, therefore this thesis is designed to investigate changes in decomposition as imparted by the soil. Furthermore the impact of cadaver interment on the surrounding soil may offer prospects for identification of clandestine graves. A series of laboratory controlled decomposition experiments using cadavers (Mus musculus) and cadaver analogues (skeletal muscle tissue (SMT); Sus scrofa, Homo sapiens, Ovis aries and Bos Taurus) were designed to investigate decomposition in burial environments. Sequential destructive harvests were carried out to monitor temporal changes during decomposition. Analyses conducted included; mass loss, microbial activity (CO2 respiration) and soil chemistry (pH, EC and extractable NH4 +, NO3 -, PO4 3- and K+). Several experimental variables were tested; frozen-thawed versus refrigerated SMT, different mammalian sources of SMT, different soil type and contribution of soil versus enteric microbial communities. Mass loss measurements for SMT experiments demonstrated a sigmoidal pattern of mass loss, however, larger cadavers (Mus musculus, 5 weeks) did not. The inhumation of SMT (frozen, unfrozen, different mammalian sources) or cadavers leads to an increase in microbial activity (CO2 respiration) within 24 hours of burial. A peak of microbial activity is attained within a week, followed by a decrease and eventual plateau. The rapid influx in microbial activity is matched by corresponding increases in pH and NH4 + concentration. pH and NH4 + are strongly correlated in soils with acidic basal pH, by comparison highly alkaline soil demonstrated no relationship. NH4 + concentration also appeared to be related directly to NO3 - concentration and cadaver or SMT mass. A decrease in NH4 + corresponds with an increase in NO3 -, however, nitrification was unpredictable. Rapid nitrification was observed in sand systems when SMT was interred, but was not noted when cadavers were interred. By comparison both sandy clay loam and loamy sand soils demonstrated rapid nitrification after inhumation of a cadaver. When cadaver or cadaver analogue mass was larger, so were NH4 + and NO3 - concentrations in systems that experienced nitrification.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2008

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