An evaluation of soil chemistry in human cadaver decomposition islands: Potential for estimating postmortem interval (PMI). Academic Article uri icon


  • Soil samples from the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) at Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, were analyzed for multiple soil characteristics from cadaver decomposition islands to a depth of 5centimeters (cm) from 63 human decomposition sites, as well as depths up to 15cm in a subset of 11 of the cadaver decomposition islands plus control soils. Postmortem interval (PMI) of the cadaver decomposition islands ranged from 6 to 1752 days. Some soil chemistry, including nitrate-N (NO3-N), ammonium-N (NH4-N), and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), peaked at early PMI values and their concentrations at 0-5cm returned to near control values over time likely due to translocation down the soil profile. Other soil chemistry, including dissolved organic carbon (DOC), dissolved organic nitrogen (DON), orthophosphate-P (PO4-P), sodium (Na+), and potassium (K+), remained higher than the control soil up to a PMI of 1752days postmortem. The body mass index (BMI) of the cadaver appeared to have some effect on the cadaver decomposition island chemistry. To estimate PMI using soil chemistry, backward, stepwise multiple regression analysis was used with PMI as the dependent variable and soil chemistry, body mass index (BMI) and physical soil characteristics such as saturated hydraulic conductivity as independent variables. Measures of soil parameters derived from predator and microbial mediated decomposition of human remains shows promise in estimating PMI to within 365days for a period up to nearly five years. This persistent change in soil chemistry extends the ability to estimate PMI beyond the traditionally utilized methods of entomology and taphonomy in support of medical-legal investigations, humanitarian recovery efforts, and criminal and civil cases.

published proceedings

  • Forensic Sci Int

author list (cited authors)

  • Fancher, J. P., Aitkenhead-Peterson, J. A., Farris, T., Mix, K., Schwab, A. P., Wescott, D. J., & Hamilton, M. D.

citation count

  • 26

complete list of authors

  • Fancher, JP||Aitkenhead-Peterson, JA||Farris, T||Mix, K||Schwab, AP||Wescott, DJ||Hamilton, MD

publication date

  • January 2017