Volume 34, Issue 3 (May 1989)
Decay Rates of Human Remains in an Arid Environment
The environment of southern Arizona with mild winters and hot, dry summers produces great variability in decay rates of human remains. Summer temperatures, which range well over 38°C (100°F), induce rapid bloating as a result of the accumulation of decompositional gases. However, in certain circumstances, the aridity can lead to extensive mummification, allowing preservation of remains for hundreds of years.
A retrospective study of 189 cases, concentrating on remains found on the desert floor or in the surrounding mountains and on remains found within closed structures, outlines the time frame and sequences of the decay process. Remains can retain a fresh appearance for a considerable time in the winter, but the onset of marked decomposition is rapid in the summer months. Bloating of the body usually is present two to seven days following death. Following this, within structures, there is frequently rapid decomposition and skeletonization. With outdoor exposure, remains are more likely to pass through a long period of dehydration of outer tissues, mummification, and reduction of desiccated tissue. Exposure of large portions of the skeleton usually does not occur until four to six months after death. Bleaching and exfoliation of bone—the beginning stages of destruction of the skeletal elements—begins at about nine months' exposure.
Insect activity, including that of maggot and beetle varieties, may accelerate decomposition, but this process is greatly affected by location of the body, seasonal weather, and accessibility of the soft tissues. Carnivores and other scavengers also are contributing factors, as are clothing or covering of the body, substrate, elevation, and latitude.