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Isotopic Taphonomy of Human Remains

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2018
244 pages
Findings and methodology are reported for a research project that analyzed samples of the hair, bone, and teeth of recently deceased human donors and then compared them to samples after environmental exposure during decomposition; and it validated the geographic location and dietary predictions of isotopes with the known origins, travel, and lifestyle of the deceased donors.

The overall goal of the research was to determine whether taphonomic processes altered pre-mortem signatures and whether both pre-mortem and post-mortem isotope signatures can provide accurate inferences about geographic areas where the deceased person had recently been. The project evaluated human cadavers at two geologically and climatologically different locations, using surface placement for seven cadavers and shallow burial for four cadavers. The study found that Sr and Pb isotopes are preserved through decomposition in teeth and bone; however, they were not well preserved in hair, despite best practices in cleaning and sample preparation. Improvements in leaching and sample preparation are unlikely to recover endogenous values. Rare earth elements may be developed as a useful postmortem modification indicator for hair. Although endogenous values may be preserved longer in some cases and environments, it will be difficult to have confidence in determining region of origin for bodies that have been exposed to the elements for more than a few days. Given the finding that teeth and bone are robust indicators for predicting geographic residence of unknown individuals, this study provides strong support for the broader and more consistent implementation of isotopic signature in forensic work. 59 tables, 25 figures, and a listing of sources for project reports

Date Published: January 1, 2018