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Waxing Grave About Adipocere: Soft Tissue Change in an Aquatic Context

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When postmortem environmental conditions are “just right,” according to the “Goldilocks Phenomenon,” soft tissues (and associated fatty acids) are converted into and preserved as adipocere. To better understand this conversion process and the development of adipocere three human cadavers were immersed in outside, water-filled pits for over 3 months to observe adipocere formation in an underwater context simulating actual field conditions. Recordings of environmental conditions showed that temperatures were between 21°C and 45°C, a range sufficient for the growth of Clostridium perfringens. Chemical analysis of liquid and tissue samples revealed an increase in palmitic acid and decrease in oleic acid. This study tracked the remarkable gross morphological changes that can occur in human bodies subjected to an aquatic postmortem environment. The results support the “Goldilocks Phenomenon” and substantiate previous findings that the presence of bacteria and water is crucial for adipocere to form.

Keywords: adipocere; fatty acids; forensic anthropology; forensic science; inhumation in water; postmortem interval; saponification

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614.

Publication date: March 1, 2007

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