For three decades—since long before the popularity of the CSI television series—the UT Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) has been on the forefront of forensic anthropology, turning out research and training law enforcement to solve crimes and identify the remains of unknown individuals.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the center, which oversees the Anthropology Research Facility, commonly known as the Body Farm. It is the nation’s most prominent facility where researchers systemically study human decomposition.
At any one time, 150 to 200 donor bodies are at the research facility.
“The heart and soul of what we do here is based on the generosity of people who donate their bodies to science—and specifically, they donate their bodies to us and we’re very grateful for that,” said Dawnie Steadman, a professor of anthropology and director of the FAC. “They want their bodies to be useful for science, and in particular, they want to help solve crimes.”
Each donated body helps scientists and students in a variety of ways.
“We want to learn a lot from every single donor that comes here, which is why they’re used in multiple research projects,” Steadman said. “They’re used in multiple trainings and in the skeletal collection. There is no end to the gift of body donation here.”
Professor Emeritus Bill Bass established the Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987 as well as the center’s body donation program, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last year (having been established ahead of the center). The center’s two-acre outdoor research facility allows scientists to use technology to study how decomposing bodies interact with the environment. Other research includes the use of portable electronic systems for finding clandestine graves—a tool that could be helpful in war zones.
One of the FAC’s newest studies has revealed that human bodies decompose at a different rate than pig or rabbit carcasses. The finding could impact forensic court cases worldwide, since many use rabbits and pigs as proxies for humans.
The FAC is home to the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, which now consists of more than 1,700 human skeletons—the largest such collection on contemporary Americans in the United States. Researchers use this resource to study modern human skeletal variation, pathology, and trauma.
Every year, the center offers hands-on training courses to law enforcement. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Kentucky Criminalistic Academy, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have come to the center to learn about forensic anthropology, the archaeology of exhuming bodies from graves, and the latest technology for discovering and recovering human remains. They practice searching for clandestine graves and excavating human remains, as well as collecting botanical and insect evidence that help determine time since death.
To learn more about the center, the body donation program, and how to become a donor, visit the Forensic Anthropology Center website.