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                                  DEPARTMENT OF ANATOMICAL SCIENCES


                                             AN321 - FORENSIC OSTEOLOGY


                                                        TIME SINCE DEATH



                                                                 W. B. Wood

                                                              Senior Lecturer

                                                   The University of Queensland







It is important for the forensic pathologist or osteologist to provide some estimate of the time since death of unidentified human remains so that the police have some guidance as to when the person may have died or gone missing and been reported to the Missing Persons Bureau.


Crucial to such a determination is evidence derived directly from the remains as well as evidence from the recovery scene. Important details include the location and disposition of the remains, whether open & exposed or contained within an enclosed space, clothed or unclothed, wrapped, on the surface, underwater, buried (and depth of burial), shaded or in sunlight, ambient temperature, rainfall, vegetation, soil type, evidence of carnivours or rodents (droppings, tracks) and whether the remains are compact or scattered,etc.


The rate of decomposition is greatly accelerated by antemortem trauma, the action of predatory carnivours and rodents, access to insects, and particularly by high temperature and humidity. A recent report from Florida USA stated that complete skeletonisation had been observed to occur in as little as 3-4 days after a body had been placed in a dump and covered by a vinyl sofa in the middle of summer.





Body Cooling:


In relatively recent death, evidence as to the time of death may be provided by the degree of postmortem cooling of a body, and depends on the ambient temperature, the presence or absence of clothing, and the degree of obesity etc. As a rule of thumb, the body cools 1 1/2 degrees F per hour.


Livor Mortis & Rigor Mortis:


The presence of livor mortis and of rigor mortis also provide evidence of relatively recent demise.


Livor mortis development begins immediately after death but does not become apparent until about 2 hours after death. It reaches its maximum after 8-12 hours and after that time becomes fixed. During its development phase it distribution may still change if the body is shifted. After 12 hours, any movement or relocation of the body will not affect the distribution of the lividity ie it has become fixed in position.



Rigor usually develops 2-4 hours after death and gradually disappears after 36-48hours. The onset and duration is dependent on the ambient temperature and the amount of oxygen debt of the muscles immediately prior to death. Rigor mortis may appear almost immediately after death and disappear within 9-12 hours in extremely hot environments or if the subject was suffering from a generalised bacterial infection prior to death. Similarly its onset and departure may be delayed in rapid cooling or freezing of the body after death.



Vitreous Humor:


The chemical constituents of the Vitreous Humor of the eye especially the potassium level increase after death and have been used to estimate the time interval since death.




Physical Examination of Remains


The rate and type of decomposition that is observed in a body also provides evidence as to the time of death. However it is extremely sensitive to a variety of intrinsic and environmental influences (Mann RW et al 1990)


            the physical state of the body at the time of death

                        thin and emaciated - skeletonise faster

                        well nourished     - form adipocere       

            the presence of antemortem trauma


            the prevailing temperature and humidity

            the postmortem interval before burial (if buried)

            the influence of clothing

            the influence of any other wrapping material (plastic, blankets etc)

            the depth of interment (in the case of burials)

            soil type and pH

            the presence of decaying vegetable matter

            access to insects

            the influence of scavengers eg dogs, rodents, foxes, wild pigs etc


The following features should be carefully noted in skeletonised remains:


            remnants of soft tissue:


                        muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage


                        mummified soft tissue


                        hair & fingernails


            bone odour (putrefaction) & a greasy feel

            bone stains

            weathering - bleaching, surface flaking & cracking, chalkiness

            bone erosion - due to wind, sand, soil or water abrasion etc


            bone invasion by termites, rootlets

            bone surface colonisation by marine organisms (bryazoa, tubeworms, barnacles

            rock boring sponges etc.)

            surface algae or mould


In the case of skeletal remains found on the surface, the presence of putrefaction odour and a greasy feel of the bones indicates relatively recent death, probably less than one year. For buried remains these signs may persist for up to 5 years.


Evidence of weathering (ie bleaching, surface cracking and flaking, and the development of a chalky appearance) usually takes two to five years to develop in bones exposed on the surface.


Extensive scattering of skeletal remains (due to scavengers) usually takes some years to occur.


Buried skeletons in a soil environment of pH <6 and with constant percolating groundwater may completely disintegrate in about 5 years.


Chemical Examination of the Bones


Changes in the organic constituents of the bones have been reported as being useful in the determination of the time since death. The following organic methods are probably the most useful but still have to be proven reliable in their application to actual cases (Knight & Lauder 1969, Facchini & Pettener 1977):


            a) The benzedine test

               if positive                               then probably < 150 years


            b) Ultraviolet fluorescence

               if universally present   then probably < 100 years


            c) The number of aminoacids in bone hydrolysate

               if  > 7                                    then probably < 100 years


            d) Bone nitrogen level

               if > 3.5g%                             then probably < 50 years


            e) The presence of prolines

               if present                               then probably < 50 years


            f) Antihuman serum reaction

               if +ve                         then probably < 5 years



Examination of Associated Artifacts


            Condition (and possible dates) of:


            clothing:            types, material, quality, colour, buttons

                                    damage, stains

                                    laundry marks


            jewellery:          finger rings, ear-rings, necklaces, brooches, bracelets


            glasses: type (bifocals etc), frame type


            dentures:           upper, lower, partial, complete, composite material, ID number


            leather: belts, handbags, shoes, wallets,


            paper:               banknotes, newspapers, licences, receipts, tickets


            plastic:  bankcards


            metal objects:  buckles, penknives, zips, coins



Examination of environmental evidence


            insects:             fly maggots (stage of development) & pupae

                                                beetles, termites etc


            vegetation:                    root invasion of bones

                                                growth or regrowth of damaged grass, shrubs etc 


            soil:                              buildup, erosion, settlement in a grave, etc


            weathering:                   bleaching of bones, surface flaking of

                                                cortical bone


            animal activity:  evidence of bone scattering,

                                                chewing etc.


            products of decomposition:

                                                volatile fatty acid concentration within the underlying soil



Much research still needs to be done to refine methods of estimating time since death. At the moment, most estimates are still only educated guesses.






Facchini F & D Patternur 1977 "Chemical and physical methods in dating human skeleton remains." AJPA 47:65-70


Knight B & I Lauder 1969 "Methods of dating skeletal remains." Human Biol. 41:322-341


Mann RW, Bass WM & L Meadows 1990 "Time since death and decomposition of the human body: variables and observations in case and experimental field studies." JFS 35(1):103-111


Smith KGV 1986 A Manual of Forensic Entomology. British Museum of Natural History London