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Developing Regional Taphonomic Standards

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 2013
98 pages

This project developed regionally specific standards for taphonomic (postmortem) data collection and interpretation in northern New England; the standards are to be used in the recovery and interpretation of human skeletal remains.


The research shows important ways in which forensic cases in northern New England are characteristically different from other regions in terms of access to heat, moisture, and scavenging. The proposed Northern New England Taphonomic Complex includes the following key traits: 5-6 months average temperatures below 4 degrees C (40 degrees F) with a corresponding absence of necrophagous insect activity; 75-80 percent of the land forested; low human population density; precipitation above 50 inches a year; and a high level of scavenger involvement. Associated protocols are proposed for scene processing. Project objectives included analysis of a 30-year outdoor case series and controlled observational studies of nine pig cadavers in order to clarify key components of the model. Cases in the series had a known postmortem interval under 2 years. Case files were analyzed for taphonomic patterns, and the accumulated degree days were calculated based on the nearest weather station. Based on findings from the case series analysis, the proposed components of the northern New England model include high scavenging prevalence, seasonal cold temperatures and snow with restricted insect access, and mostly forested environments. From this model, hypotheses can be generated and tested in the future. Results of this research are being used in the Maine and New Hampshire criminal justice community. This regional taphonomy information-system approach can be adopted in other regions, with the potential for data comparison across regions. A symposium organized for the 2013 American Academy of Forensic Sciences explored patterns found in multiple regions and began the work of comparing patterns. 20 figures, 17 tables, and appended project products

Date Published: August 1, 2013