Buried Pig Bodies Help Scientists Refine Search Methods for Mass Graves

Currently, the science of detecting mass graves is hit or miss, though the remains of thousands of missing persons may be stashed in clandestine graves

Workers examine remains at a mass grave in eastern Bosnia in 2004.
Workers examine remains at a mass grave in eastern Bosnia in 2004. Polargeo

It helps to have hard evidence when making a case against criminals. For those who committed crimes against humanity, that evidence often takes the form of mass graves. But locating hundreds or even thousands of buried bodies can be more difficult than it sounds. A team of researchers from the UK and Colombia hope to ease that search process by developing new means of sniffing out sites of atrocities.

In a poster abstract presented at the Meeting of the Americas in Mexico, the authors write:

Nowadays, there are thousands of missing people around the world that could have been tortured and killed and buried in clandestine graves. This is a huge problem for their families and governments that are responsible to warranty the human rights for everybody. These people need to be found and the related crime cases need to be resolved.

Currently, the science of detecting mass graves is hit or miss. Local governments and organizations try different methods of detecting clandestine burial sites, and some work better than others depending upon the circumstances. Developing a standard, refined technique for both locating the graves and determining factor such as the time of death, the researchers think, will expedite the process of convicting murderers for their crimes.

In the UK, researchers pursued this goal by burying pigs and then monitoring soil gases, fluids and other changes over time as the carcasses decomposed underground. Those results are already being applied throughout Europe. But bodies break down differently in different climates, and for this new project, researchers will bury pigs in eight different mass grave simulation sites throughout Colombia. Each of the site will represent a different climate, soil type and rainfall pattern. They plan to use grond penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, conductivity, magnetometry and other measures to characterize the grave sites over 18 months.

More from Smithsonian.com:

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