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Anthropology students study decomposing bodies

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Waking up at dawn to study the decomposition of human bodies is an act typically seen on television shows, but this type of activity is something graduate assistants with the Anthropology Department do on a daily basis.

The Anthropology Department at Texas State is one of the few in the nation that has a ranch dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human bodies.

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, located on Freeman Ranch, is a 26-acre outdoor human decomposition center created for the purpose of studying the various decomposition methods of humans under different variables, according to the department’s website.

Working with decomposing human bodies exposed to the elements is not foreign to Lauren Meckel, graduate research assistant for the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State.

Human remains are collected for further examination and research.
Human remains are collected for further examination and research.

For Meckel and her fellow graduate students, FARF facilitates a way to learn more about anthropology while gaining hands-on experience.

“We meet up basically every day to go check out the progress of the bodies used out in the ranch,” Meckel said. “I wake up, come to the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Laboratory and head on out to the ranch when everyone is ready to go.”

GEFARL is another laboratory the Anthropology Department owns located off campus near the ranch. The lab is used to study and store the bones for examinations and research, Meckel said. There is also a 3-D printer onsite used to print bones for examination.

Meckel arrives at GEFARL early in the morning where she meets with second- and first-year anthropology graduate students Devora Gleiber and Chuan Clemmons.

Once all members of the team are on site, the three students take a Texas State service truck to Freeman Ranch to collect data on the bodies they are studying.

“Freeman Ranch is a beautiful place that allows us to really study firsthand what is going on during decomposition,” Clemmons said. “Once we get out to where the bodies are, we collect data on the progress.”

Since the establishment of the program in 2008, the Anthropology Department has studied decomposition patterns of over 100 people, Meckel said.

The students check the skin color, dryness and moisture of the body along with maggot populations, internal temperature and other key factors for the research conducted, Meckel said.

“You get used to the smell when you’re out there all the time,” Gleiber said. “It doesn’t really bother us anymore and you can’t really tell. All in a day’s work.”

One of Gleiber’s jobs when examining the bodies is to take the internal temperature of the carcass with a long thermometer.

Gleiber said the job takes precision and needs to be done to all the bodies for research.

“Some of the bodies out here can mummify because of the weather conditions of Texas,” Meckel said. “They will have a bit of moisture to them and the skin will turn into a glossy coat over the body.”

Cages protect the bodies on the ranch when the students are not inspecting them. This is to limit intervention in the decomposition process by elements in the environment, Meckel said.

“Being out here is more than just examining dead bodies to us,” Meckel said. “This is science and this is captivating to understand how we all naturally settle into the earth after death.”

During data collection, Clemmons inspects the maggot count on the bodies. She said the amount depends on the stage of decomposition of the body.

“After a while, the sun will kill all the maggots on the body,” Clemmons said. “But early on, these decomposers are all inside the body and under crevices eating away.”

Body donations come from different locations in the surrounding, Meckel said. Sometimes students are the ones who get the carcasses from the donors.

Various articles of clothing from a corpse are kept in a bag for further examination.
Various articles of clothing from a corpse are kept in a bag for further examination.

She said the anthropology department is happy and grateful to receive bodies from people who donate for scientific research.

“It’s always interesting to see the progress from when we first see the bodies to the next few weeks,” Meckel said. “At first you think about how this person was living not too long ago, and how they too had a life just like everyone else.”

Meckel said her experience on Freeman Ranch has taught her to be grateful and humble for the ability to study and learn more about what happens to a body after death.

Once all data is collected, the bodies are covered and the tools are disinfected. The team heads back to a shed near the truck where they pack up and leave the bodies to decompose further before returning the next day.

“We all have class throughout the day, eat, sleep and study like everyone else,” Meckel said. “Our mornings are just a bit different from the average student, but we love every second of what we do.”

On the truck ride back to the laboratory, the graduate students discuss their classes and the observed data they collected. They spend their days in class only to return the next morning to examine the bodies of the deceased.

“This is a science and we really just want everyone to appreciate what we do here,” Meckel said. “We are doing some great research out here that we really want to show the world what we find.”