The finding could ‘significantly’ change how post-mortem investigations are carried out, especially in cases of unexplained deaths
The zombies from ‘Walking Dead’ may be frighteningly closer to reality than you’d like to imagine.
Australian researchers have observed human bodies moving for more than a year after death, a finding that can greatly change how post-mortem investigations are conducted, they say.
Researchers at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), informally known as a body farm, used a time-lapse camera to take overhead pictures of a corpse every 30 minutes during daylight hours for 17 months.
“What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body,” medical scientist Alyson Wilson told ABC Australia.
While the team expected some post-mortem movement in the early stages of decomposition, the length at which they observed the body moving was a surprising find.
These findings could “significantly” impact unexplained death investigations she added. Previously, forensic scientists assumed that the position of a discovered body was the position at time of death — if there was no evidence proving that the body was moved.
“We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out,” she explained.
Wilson could not immediately be reached for comment.
However, Shari Forbes, director of Canada’s first body farm — and former director of AFTER — said the finding isn’t all that uncommon. “It’s well-known to researchers but not conveyed to police investigators,” she said, namely due to the lack of facilities around the world, outside of the U.S.
The reasons for prolonged movement aren’t all that mystifying either, she added. It could be a number of things — insect larvae, shrinkage of body tissue, scavenging.
Wilson also found, over the course of three years, that corpses left outdoors would mummify — the process by which the skin and flesh of a corpse is preserved — under the right circumstances.
“We used to think it could only happen in a hot-and-dry environment or cold-and-dry — the key word being dry,” explained Forbes. However, the research reveals that natural mummification isn’t necessarily dependent on environmental factors and could be due to anything drawing moisture out from the body such as insects, dry soil, solar radiation.
It would differ around the world, added Forbes. For example, the process of mummification in Canada could result in two extreme scenarios — the body would freeze during winter leading to some degree of mummification or rapidly decompose during the warm summers.
Wilson’s research also confirmed the value of a time-lapse camera to study the decomposition rate of a human body in any environment. In a study published last month, she used the camera to test whether a scientific equation used to estimate a body’s decomposition in the northern hemisphere could apply to an Australian environment.
“Until we had AFTER, most of the science on how bodies decomposed was based on the northern hemisphere, where the climate is different, the weather is different and even the insects can be different,” she said.
This is the “first time” such photos have been recorded, according to Dr. Xanthe Mallett, a forensic anthropologist and criminologist at the University of Newcastle.
“Previously, if the police had asked me if a set of human remains were found and they were mummified, I would have said it’s likely that that person was left outside in autumn and winter,” added Mallett. The new data “opens up the entire year for mummification in the correct circumstances, and it stops us from going down the wrong path.”