‘Body farm’ founder explains process of identifying remains


Recently, human bones were sent to the Knox County Regional Forensic Center after an off-trail hiker found the remains at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Park rangers said the remains appeared to be several months old.

Dr. William Bass, a forensic anthropology expert and founder of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” said he helped law enforcement identify remains for several cases out of the Smoky Mountains.

He said if the remains appeared to be several months old, they would only be bones.

“In Tennessee, in June, July and August, when it’s really hot, you can go from what you and I are now to a complete skeleton in only two weeks,” Bass said.

Bass was the first to document decomposition of a human body, which is how the “Body Farm” came to be.

Bass said that just by looking and feeling the bones, a forensic anthropologist can find important clues.

“In ten minutes I could tell you I think the age and the sex of the individual. Race would take a little longer,” Bass said.

He said his former graduates would most likely be the ones to examine the human remains the off-trail hiker found.

They would probably take about an hour to determine the age and sex of the person, he said.

Bass has worked hundreds of cases for law enforcement.

He said investigators typically ask for the person’s age first.

Forensic anthropologists can determine age several different ways.

“If you find the bone and pick it up, and both ends are attached, you know that individual is at least 16 (years-old) for females, 18 (years-old) for males,” Bass said.

Without going into a biology lesson on human anatomy, forensic anthropologists essentially look at how much the bone has grown to determine age.

Bass said he can tell if the remains are from and elderly person if they show signs of osteoporosis, or a condition leading to bones becoming less dense and more frail.

Forensic anthropologists can also look at teeth to determine age.

“Are the baby teeth gone? Are the third molars in? If the third molar is in, you know it’s 18 (year-old),” Bass explained.

To identify the sex of the human remains, Bass said there are two main areas of the body forensic anthropologists focus on: the skull and the pelvis.

“The sciatic notch in males will be fairly narrow. In females, it’s much broader. So that’s what you’re looking at. You’re looking at a long pubic bone in females and a wide sciatic notch,” Bass said.

On the skull, Bass said, forensic anthropologists look at the nuchal crest. It’s the ridge on the back of the skull. Bass said the nuchal crest is larger on men than on women.

Bass said that certain clues can make identifying the remains easier.

He said the skeleton is a “library of the history of that individual.”

“If there’s a bone that was broken at one time, and it is healed, and the heal is good–it had been set in a cast–there should be a record of that somewhere,” Bass explained.

Nature makes identifying remains harder.

“You’d have a real nice bone with a fracture across it. Now, you get both ends chewed off and only the middle (is left), and it’s been broken because (animals) chewed down on it. All those things add to kind of like an eraser. You’re rubbing off things that you need to see,” Bass explained.

He said that in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, either dogs, coyotes or bears possibly played a role in how the human remains decomposed.

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