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Peek Into Tiny Crime Scenes Hand-Built by an Obsessed Millionaire

At first glance, the miniatures in the Maryland medical examiner’s office look like ordinary dollhouses. But look inside, and each is a carefully crafted crime scene, right down to the tiny murder weapons and minuscule clues.

And it’s all based on true crimes. Frances Glessner Lee, heir to International Harvester’s tractor and farm equipment fortune, was transfixed by criminal investigations. Much to her family’s dismay, she spent much of her life—and a small fortune—building dioramas depicting the scenes of real crimes in New England, incorporating evidence that’s still used to train investigators in crime scene analysis. Even today, the clues woven into her dioramas are closely guarded secrets.

Glessner Lee called the scenes Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and she built them with a grand purpose: to elevate gumshoe cops into an elite squad of homicide detectives. She founded a department of legal medicine at Harvard and a weeklong seminar, still held annually in Baltimore, using the dioramas to teach the art of observation and the science of crime scene analysis.

(To see more of the dioramas, click through the gallery at the top of this story, with photos by National Geographic photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg.)

Not only are the Nutshell dioramas still used to train investigators, but Glessner Lee overcame her outsider status to become a well-regarded criminalist of her day. Today she’s often called the “mother of forensic science.”  

She built the deathly dioramas in the 1940s and ‘50s on a scale of one inch to one foot, shrinking down details that she pulled from autopsy reports, police records, and witnesses—tempered with a dose of obfuscation. Sometimes she changed names and dates in her scene descriptions, and she took liberties with details that weren’t essential as evidence, such as wallpaper and decor. She spent as much on some of the miniatures as a full-size house cost at the time, says Bruce Goldfarb, executive assistant to the chief medical examiner of Maryland and de facto curator of the dioramas.

Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

“It couldn’t be toylike at all. They had to be as gritty and realistic as possible,” Goldfarb says.

In one, a woman lies dead in a bathtub, plastic water frozen in time as it streams across her face. Her home is shabby. The linoleum in front of the wooden commode is rubbed bare as if from years of use.

“What blows my mind is the boards under the sink are water-stained. It has no significance at all, but nothing escaped her observation,” says Goldfarb.

Glessner Lee’s attention to detail is legendary. Sometimes entire rooms were constructed that couldn’t even be seen without taking the diorama apart, and she once insisted, Goldfarb says, that a tiny rocking chair should rock the same number of times after being pushed as its full-size counterpart. “There was real plaster and lath; those walls have studs, and the doors are framed,” he says.

The dioramas speak not just to a macabre obsession, but to Glessner Lee’s passion for and fascination with the victims she depicted, many of which were women, in her 19 known dioramas (she’s thought to have made at least 20).

“This was a society woman, a millionairess, and it’s striking who’s portrayed,” says Goldfarb. “Most are marginalized, alcoholics or prostitutes—poor people living quite desperate lives. She chose to document the lives of people who were far removed from her social circles.”

Max Aguilera-Hellweg is the photographer who shot the images above for National Geographic’s July feature story on forensic science. His eerie photos spotlight the victims in the dioramas as well.

“I look at photography as mathematics, and this was using light and subtraction to reveal what’s important to me,” he says. No one is allowed to touch the fragile dioramas, so the photographer spent hours setting up each shot using tiny flashlights and positioning the camera to put the viewer inside the crime scenes.

As a former medical doctor who had declared death, Aguilera-Hellweg thought he had seen it all. He has photographed autopsies, surgeries, and dead bodies, but says he was shocked to learn of the Nutshell dioramas for the first time. “I didn’t know they existed,” he says.

After three days of staring at the scenes, Aguilera-Hellweg says he thinks he may have picked up on a few important clues. “What can the crime scene tell you by looking at what’s there? That what Frances Glessner Lee wanted to teach,” he says. “It’s all about the art of observation.”

Read more about the state of forensic science today in “How Science Is Putting a New Face on Crime Solving” and a companion quiz feature, “Can You Rule Out Suspects Using Faces Drawn From DNA?”

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Flies Could Falsely Place Someone at a Crime Scene

The Australian sheep blowfly doesn't just eat nectar. It has a taste for a particular human body fluid—and it’s not blood.
The Australian sheep blowfly doesn’t just eat nectar. It has a taste for a particular human body fluid—and it’s not blood.

This might be the grossest science experiment I’ve ever written about—which is really saying something on a blog called Gory Details—but it’s also one of the most fascinating. It has to do with the taste a certain type of fly has for human bodily fluids.

Blowflies, in case you’re not familiar with them, are the flies of death. As I learned when rats died in my ceiling, these big shiny flies have an amazing ability to appear seemingly out of nowhere within moments of blood being spilled or at the slightest whiff of decay.

So, a lot of blowflies are sometimes found buzzing around a gory crime scene. That got forensic expert Annalisa Durdle wondering: With all those flies doing what flies do—flying around and pooping on stuff—could they be contaminating crime scenes?

“Interestingly, fly poo can also look very similar to blood spatter,” says Durdle, who studied forensic science at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Anyhow,” she e-mailed in response to my indelicate questions about her research, “it turns out that you can get full human DNA profiles from a single piece of fly poo. (I tend to refer to poo rather than vomit because in my experience flies tend to eat their vomit and most of what you have left is poo—although they do eat that too!)”

Clearly, blowflies are gross.

But could they falsely incriminate someone? To find out, Durdle needed to know what blowflies would really eat at a crime scene.  

So she did the experiment. Her team offered Australian sheep blowflies a crime scene buffet, with body fluids collected from volunteers—blood, saliva, and semen—plus other snacks that flies might find in a victim’s home: pet food, canned tuna, and even honey.

“You draw more flies with honey,” my mother always told me. But in this case, she was wrong.

What you draw more flies with, it turns out, is semen.

“It’s the crack cocaine of the fly world,” Durdle says. “They gorge on it; it makes them drunk (they stumble around, partly paralyzed—I’ve even seen one fly give up hope of cleaning itself properly and sit down on its bum!). Then they gorge some more and then it kills them. But they die happy!”

Video: Meet Annalisa Durdle, the coolest fly-poop scientist ever.

The flies liked pet food too, but weren’t much into blood, and they were really uninterested in saliva. Maybe they go for semen’s higher protein content—it contains more than 200 different proteins, at much higher levels than in blood. (Update: or maybe not. Protein levels vary, and Annalisa Durdle notes that “flies are like people—they don’t necessarily eat what is good for them!” Flies are attracted to various aromas, including sulphur-based ones, so it may be that semen is simply more alluring than other food sources.)

Another thing semen has plenty of: DNA.

Durdle tested flies’ poop after various meals. “If the flies had fed on semen or a combination with semen in it, then you got a full human DNA profile almost every time. With blood, it was maybe a third of the time and with saliva, never.”

“It was also interesting to find the flies generally preferred dry blood or semen to wet blood or semen,” Durdle says. “This could be important, because it means flies could continue to cause problems at a scene long after the biological material had dried.”

How big a deal is this? Durdle says, “You really need to look at the probabilities… the chances that a fly might feed on some poor guy’s semen (after he’s had some innocent quiet time to himself), and then fly into a crime scene and poo, potentially incriminating him.”

There’s also the chance that a forensic investigator could sample fly poop thinking it’s blood spatter, she says, and find DNA that’s not from the victim.

A fly might occasionally be helpful to the cause of criminal justice. If a fly eats bodily fluids from a crime scene and then flies away into another room and poops there, it might save a sample of DNA from the perpetrator’s attempts to clean up.

Flies aren’t the only potential problem for interpreting DNA. As the technology used in forensic labs has become more sensitive, there’s greater risk of picking up tiny bits of DNA transferred to a crime scene, forensic scientist Cynthia Cale argued last year in Nature.

In fact, Cale showed that one person can transfer another person’s DNA to a knife handle after two minutes of holding hands. (Next she says she’ll try shorter times, to see if even a brief encounter could transfer DNA.)  

The fly-poop research is interesting, Cale says. Blowflies would probably be more likely to transfer DNA within a crime scene rather than bringing it in from outside, but even that could confuse the reconstruction of a crime.

“I think the biggest impact might be when a defense lawyer uses it to raise doubt in the mind of a jury,” Durdle says.  


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Are These Crime Drama Clues Fact or Fiction?

Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape, then was exonerated by DNA. He was convicted of murder in 2007, based partly on DNA evidence.
Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated by DNA in 2003. In 2007, he was convicted of murder, based partly on DNA evidence.

I’m often just as surprised by what forensic scientists can’t do as by what they can. In the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, for instance, the question of whether police planted the main character’s blood at a crime scene comes down to whether or not the FBI can detect a common laboratory chemical called EDTA in a bloodstain.

On a TV crime show, this would be a snap. The test would take about five minutes and would involve inserting a swab into a magic detector box that beeps and spits out an analysis of every substance known to humankind.

In real life, there’s no common and accepted test in forensic labs for EDTA even today, nine years after the FBI tested blood for the Steven Avery trial featured in Making a Murderer. In that case, the FBI resurrected a test they had last used in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, and testified that the blood in question did not contain EDTA and therefore was not planted using EDTA-preserved blood from an evidence vial. (Avery was convicted.)

Questions about the test’s power and reliability have dogged the case ever since. There’s even an in-depth Reddit thread where fans of the Netflix show are trying to sort out the science.

Having worked in chemistry labs, it surprised me at first that this analysis would be difficult or controversial. After all, a quick search of the scientific literature turns up methods for detecting low levels of EDTA in everything from natural waters to beverages.

Steven Averys
Steven Avery’s attorneys Jerome Buting (shown) and Dean Strang struggled to dispute chemical evidence introduced mid-trial that undermined the idea that police had planted blood evidence.

But the key here is that we’re talking about forensic science, not beverage chemistry. Beverage chemistry, in this case, is much more exacting. Was there really no EDTA in the blood swabbed from victim Teresa Halbach’s vehicle, or was the chemical simply too diluted or degraded to be detected with the FBI’s method? Could the test have missed a small amount of EDTA? It would be hard to say without further experiments that replicate crime scene conditions, experiments that essentially put the test to the test.

The reality is that forensic science today is a strange mix of the high-tech and the outdated, so questions about evidence like those in Avery’s case are not uncommon. Methods that we take for granted, like measuring a particular chemical, or lifting a fingerprint off a gun and matching it to a suspect, can be difficult—and far from foolproof. On the other hand, some of the real science happening now sounds like something dreamed up by Hollywood script writers, such as new methods aiming to reconstruct what a person’s face looks like using only their DNA.

Making a Murderer, whether it sways your opinion on Steven Avery or not, has done a service by getting people interested in something as arcane as EDTA tests, and by showing why real-life crimes are not solved nearly so neatly as fictional ones.

I see the messiness of forensic science all the time, because I scan its journals and often come across new studies that make me think either “you mean we couldn’t already do that?” or “I had no idea that was possible.” I’ve gathered a few recent examples for a quiz.

How well can you separate CSI fact from fiction? Here are a few crime-solving scenarios I’ve cooked up; see if you can tell which use real methods based on new forensic research. You’ll find the answers below.

  1. A skeleton is found buried in a shallow grave. The body’s soft tissues have completely decomposed, so only the teeth and bones remain. A forensic anthropologist examines the bones and reports that they come from a female who was five foot six inches tall, and obese. Could she really tell the person was overweight?
  2. The body of a white male in his 50s turns up on a nature trail, scavenged by animals. The victim’s bones show a number of puncture wounds consistent with animal bites, but x-rays reveal fine lines of different density in the bone around some of the punctures. An expert says these lines show that the wounds were made about 10 years before death. Is it possible to tell the approximate age of these wounds from x-rays?
  3. A woman is found dead in her home, bludgeoned to death. A bloody frying pan lies on the floor next to her. Her husband is the main suspect. Fingerprints on the pan’s handle are too smudged to make a definitive ID, but an analyst says she can still rule out the husband: All of the fingerprints on the pan came from a woman, the expert says. Is it possible to tell if the fingerprints were from a male or female?
  4. A woman is sexually assaulted and identifies her male attacker in a lineup. The suspect’s DNA matches DNA found on her body. It looks like an easy case for the prosecutor—until the suspect reveals that he has an identical twin. Neither twin admits to the crime. Is it possible to tell which twin’s DNA was found at the crime scene?
  5. A witness sees a man in a stocking mask rob and shoot a man outside his home. A stocking is found near the house, and a hair-analysis expert testifies that 13 hairs in the mask are all human head hairs from an African-American. A microscopic analysis matches the characteristics of one hair to a particular African-American suspect. The prosecutor tells the jury that the chances are one in ten million that this could be someone else’s hair. Can hairs be matched to an individual this accurately?


Answers Below


  1. Yes. Biologists have long known that greater body mass changes the weight-bearing bones of the legs and spine, and a new study shows that even bones that aren’t supporting most of the body’s weight, such as arm bones, have greater bone mass and are stronger in obese people. So even in a skeleton missing its legs, our forensic anthropologist might be able to tell that the person was obese.
  2. No. This one is from an actual episode of Bones (The Secret in the Siege, Season 8, Episode 24, reviewed here by real-life bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove). In the episode, Dr. Temperance Brennan uses Harris lines to determine the age of bone injuries in two victims. Harris lines are real, but they form only in growing bones, so are useful only in determining childhood injuries or illness.
  3. Yes. A study published in November showed that the level of amino acids in sweat is about twice as high in women’s fingerprints as in men’s. Of course, as with all the new methods, this one could face challenges as evidence in a U.S. court of law, where the Daubert standard allows judges to decide whether scientific evidence is admissible based on factors including its degree of acceptance by the scientific community.
  4. Yes, if you do it right. Standard DNA tests don’t distinguish between twins, who are born with nearly identical DNA, but it’s possible to do a more sophisticated test to catch post-birth mutations and epigenetic differences, which you can think of as genetic “add-ons” that don’t affect the DNA sequence itself. One new test distinguishes between twins by looking for small differences in the melting temperature of their DNA that are caused by such epigenetic modifications.
  5. No. The field of hair analysis has come under heavy scrutiny, especially after a review by the U.S. Justice Department revealed major flaws in 257 out of 268 hair analyses from the FBI. The case described here is the real-life case of Santae Tribble, convicted in 1978 of murder. In 2012, DNA tests showed that none of the hairs matched Tribble—and one was from a dog.
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You’re Surrounded by Bacteria That Are Waiting for You to Die

Antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (yellow) killing and escaping from a human white blood cell.
Antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (yellow) killing and escaping from a human white blood cell.
Photograph by NIAID

You are filled with bacteria, and you are covered in them. And a whole lot of them are just waiting for you to drop dead.

As soon as you die, they’ll swoop in. This week, we learned exactly how microbes chow down on us. A brave and strong-stomached team of scientists spent months watching dead bodies decompose, tracking all the bacteria, fungi, and worms, day by day. Forensic scientists can use this timeline, published in Science, to help determine time—and even place—of death. (More on that in a previous Gory Details.)

The microbes in your intestines get first dibs, the scientists found. As soon as you die, they’ll start decomposing you from the inside out. Meanwhile, other bacteria on your skin or in the soil beneath you start mounting an attack from the outside in. As Michael Byrne at Motherboard so nicely summed it up, “Earth is just waiting for you to drop dead.”

That’s a little unsettling, if you think about it. And it begs the question: What keeps all those bacteria from decomposing you alive?

That’s silly, you say. I’m alive. Only dead things decompose.

Yes, but why?

What keeps all those bacteria from decomposing you alive?

As the new study points out, two of our most crucial defenses against being decomposed are toppled as soon as we die. Our immune system shuts down, and our bodies cool off. Bacteria like this; they don’t have an easy time growing in a hot body. (Think about it: When we have an infection our bodies develop a fever to ward it off.)

Basically, a big part of life involves your cells waging a battle to the death with bacterial cells. As long as you’re alive and healthy, your cells are winning. Decomposition is when your cells lose. 

One of the clearest descriptions I’ve read comes from Moheb Costandi’s “This is what happens after you die“:

Most internal organs are devoid of microbes when we are alive. Soon after death, however, the immune system stops working, leaving them to spread throughout the body freely. This usually begins in the gut, at the junction between the small and large intestines. Left unchecked, our gut bacteria begin to digest the intestines—and then the surrounding tissues—from the inside out, using the chemical cocktail that leaks out of damaged cells as a food source. Then they invade the capillaries of the digestive system and lymph nodes, spreading first to the liver and spleen, then into the heart and brain.

As soon as you die, your body essentially gets its first break from a war that it has been fighting every moment of your life.

When the bacteria start to win that war in a living person, we call it an infection, and we try to flush the invaders out of a wound. Or we go in with antibiotics to poison them.

Let’s pause for just a moment to appreciate those antibiotics. We thought we had outwitted bacteria. But now we’ve overused and misused antibiotics, giving the bacteria a chance to figure out our defenses. They’re adapting, becoming resistant to our weapons, and we’re already seeing the failure of some of our last lines of defense, leading to more infections, illness, and death.

Ultimately, we lose our battle with bacteria when we die. But until then, it’s pretty amazing to think of the fine line between life and becoming bacteria food. Imagine the evolutionary arms race that has led to an immune system so vigilant that it can fend off constant attack for decades. 

I’m just grateful not to be decomposing right now.

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Do You Have a Face-Finding Superpower for Fighting Crime?

At a crowded tourist site, a young man in a yellow T-shirt angles for a spot on a bench. He sits, removes his backpack, and places it on the ground. After riffling through a blue plastic shopping bag, he walks away, leaving the backpack behind. A few minutes later, a bomb explodes. Twenty people die.

All that’s known about the young man in the yellow T-shirt is contained in a snippet of dim, grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Would anyone recognize his face?

This really happened. Just a couple weeks ago, Thai police launched a search for the young man in a yellow T-shirt, whom they believe blew up Bangkok’s Erawan shrine on August 16. They arrested a man at the Cambodian border and say he matches the description of the yellow-shirted bomber. But based on that grainy footage, they hesitate to say for sure.

Photograph by REUTERS, Thai Police/Handout via Reuters
This man was spotted dropping a backpack just before the bombing of a Bangkok shrine. Photograph by REUTERS, Thai Police/Handout via Reuters
Police captures this image of a man in a yellow shirt dropping a backpack just before the bombing of a shrine in Bangkok.

It’s just this kind of situation that prompted Scotland Yard to form a team of super-recognizers.  These London police officers have an amazing ability to recognize and match faces, even from rough CCTV footage. 

“Gary Collins is so good that he ID’d three people over his Sunday roast,” says Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, speaking about one member of the super-recognizer team who likes to relax on weekends with an iPad loaded with photos of criminal suspects. After London’s 2011 riots, the superrecognizers combed through thousands of hours of footage; Collins alone identified an incredible 190 faces among the rioters. Today, Neville heads London’s central forensic image team, which has tested thousands of police officers and identified 152 super-recognizers. These face-spotting stars normally work in their local stations, building up a mental library of the area’s criminals, and periodically attach to New Scotland Yard to solve crimes.

So far, among their wins they’ve helped to solve the murder of 14-year-old Alice Gross, spotted a serial molester on different city bus routes (he was tracked to particular routes and arrested) and are now working to link at least 30 different thefts, including major art and jewel heists, to one perpetrator.    

London’s super-recognizers were out in force at this week’s Notting Hill Carnival, the world’s biggest street fair outside Rio de Janeiro. “We’ve had a lot of problems with crime at the carnival,” Neville says. So super-recognizers sat in CCTV control centers this year and scanned the crowd, where they spotted members of rival gangs edging close to one another. Officers on the scene found and disarmed the men, averting a potential fight. “The senior detective was amazed at their ability to spot suspects in dense crowds,” Neville says.

You might share this superpower, too, and not even know it. The ability to recognize faces, it turns out, falls along a spectrum, says David White of the University of New South Wales’ forensic psychology laboratory. At the lowest end are people who are “face-blind,” a condition called prosopagnosia. (Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who recently died, had this condition. He said he recognized his best friend Eric by his “heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles.”) On the other end are super-recognizers.

Most people overestimate their skills, White says. “When people think of face recognition, they think of recognizing people they know,” he says—like spotting a friend in the grocery store. But recognizing the face of a stranger, say from two different photos laid side-by-side: That’s much, much harder.

You can take a test to get an idea of where you fall on the spectrum. Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich, devised both a short, simple test—meant as an extremely rough first pass for fun—and a more detailed test that will help researchers map out how many people fall along each part of the spectrum.  (Go here to take the simple test and find a link to the longer test.)

So far, Davis says, it appears that face recognition is an innate ability—not learned, for the most part—and that it’s distributed on a bell curve, like IQ. No particular genes have been linked to the ability, but a 2010 study found that face-recognition ability was very similar in identical twins, compared with fraternal twins, a first indicator of a genetic link to this skill. What’s more, prosopagnosia or “face-blindness” is tied to the fusiform face region, slivers that run along the bottom of the brain near the back of your head. That’s probably a good place to look for evidence of differential brain activity in super-recognizers as well.

London's police super-recognizers identified Arnis Zalkalns as the potential killer of Alice Gross based on CCTV images. Photograph courtesy of Metropolitan Police/PA Wire
London’s police super-recognizers identified Arnis Zalkalns as the potential killer of Alice Gross based on CCTV images. Photograph courtesy of Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

So what percentage of people might be super-recognizers? Davis says that depends where you decide to draw the line, but certainly fewer than 1 percent of people fall into the tail end of the bell curve where the truly exceptional lie.

Next is the question of how to take advantage of people with natural face-sighting superpowers. Detective Neville says that he’s had phone calls from police around the world interested in learning about his team. And White has been working with the Australian passport office to develop tests for face-matching ability and training for passport officers, who in their day-to-day work have to determine whether the stranger in front of them is the same person shown in a tiny passport photo.

In a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, White’s team tested a group of crack forensic examiners who specialize in face image analysis to see whether they would perform better than average, and to begin understanding whether training might help to improve the skills of people who match faces for a living.

The experts, it turned out, did perform better than either untrained students or forensic experts who don’t match faces regularly. (And, by the way, did far better on tasks where facial-recognition computer algorithms typically fail.) Perhaps people with above-average skills gravitated into these positions based on their abilities. But surprisingly, the expert face-matchers showed another ability, unusual in those with “natural” face-matching skills, to identify faces that were shown upside-down. That suggests to White that the experts’ training, which emphasized breaking a face down into component parts and matching each one, may be boosting their skills beyond their natural abilities.

So perhaps there’s still some hope for those who, like me, score a pathetic 7 out of 14 on the simple face-matching test.

A bit murkier, though, is how courts around the world might respond to the introduction of evidence based on a positive ID by a super-recognizer. In the United States, judges use a legal precedent called the Daubert standard to determine whether  evidence is scientifically supported, and eyewitness IDs of all sorts have come under scrutiny. But Neville says his team’s matches are usually just the starting point for developing a criminal case, pointing police toward a suspect who can then be investigated using DNA or good old gumshoe police work, in which case the ID is more of an investigative tool than direct evidence of criminal misdeeds.

Meanwhile, the Thai police say they’re looking for more eyewitnesses in the case of their suspected bomber, and say they will “perform further tests related to existing evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA, and photos.”

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World’s Oldest Murder Mystery Was 430,000 Years in the Making

The first known murder was just as brutal as any other. The attacker smashed the victim twice in the head, leaving matching holes above the victim’s left eyebrow. The dead body was then dropped down a 43-foot shaft into a cave—where it lay for nearly half a million years.

Talk about your cold case.

Paleontologists pieced together the 430,000-year-old skull and reported their forensic analysis Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. Injuries to the skull represent the oldest direct evidence of homicide, the scientists say.

As for whether this was the first murder ever to occur, “for sure that’s not the case,” says Nohemi Sala, lead author of the study. The scientists can describe this victim as a young adult, but the age and even gender are unknown.

“In the fossil record, there are many cases of traumatic injury, but not a lot of evidence of killing,” says Sala, a paleontologist at the Instituto de Salud Carlos III in Madrid.

That doesn’t mean killing was uncommon before modern times, of course, but fossilized remains of any kind are relatively rare so far back.

The last several tens of thousands of years, on the other hand, are littered with grisly scenes. Take the case of Shanidar-3, a Neanderthal who lived about than 50,000 years ago. A cut on one of his left ribs shows that Shanidar-3 was probably killed by a spear, making him perhaps the oldest known murder victim prior to the new find.

The latest skull comes from the Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” site in Spain, where paleontologists have found the remains of at least 28 individuals. Who were these people? Well, they weren’t modern humans, and they weren’t really Neanderthals either.

Exactly what to call the Sima de los Huesos people has been debated, but Sala and her colleagues identify them as members of the species Homo heidelbergensis, an early human ancestor that gave rise to the Neanderthals.

Cause of death

To figure out whether the skull fractures resulted from blows or from the fall down the cave shaft, the team compared the injuries to those from modern cases of violence and falls. A face-to-face attack with a blunt instrument best fits the pattern of injury, the scientists say. The bones showed no evidence of healing, so the victim probably died immediately or soon after the attack.

© Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films, from Arsuaga et al/Science 2014
The “Pit of Bones” cave in Spain. © Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films, from Arsuaga et al/Science 2014
The remains of 28 individuals who lived over 400,000 years ago were found in this cave, the "Pit of Bones" in Spain.

What’s more, the two holes in the skull are the same shape and appear to have been made by the same weapon. It’s very unlikely that an accidental fall onto a rock would produce two nearly identical skull fractures, the team says.

The weapon

Sala says the weapon was probably “something very hard,” but we’ll never know if it was made of wood or rock, or something else.

The scientists scoured the site, she says, but didn’t turn up any potential murder weapons. There was only stone tool found at the site, and it wasn’t the right shape.

The motive

Another unsolved mystery: what drove an ancient person to kill. “Life was hard in the past,” Sala says, so there could have conflicts over resources or any number of reasons for a fight.

Even with difficult lives, though, Sala describes the Sima de los Huesos people as caring for one another. “There were 28 individuals at the site of different ages,” she says. “We know that some of these people had health problems. One person had very serious pathology in the lower back and probably had troule walking and moving.” Someone had to be caring for these people before their deaths, she says.

And while it might not sound like a lovely funeral today, the fact that people living at the site buried bodies by dropping them down the same shaft indicates some sense of ceremonial burial or ritual—the dead weren’t merely dragged away from the campsite to decay.

Overall, the site paints a picture of ancient people who lived, loved—and sometimes fought—together.

Sala’s take on life with Homo heidelbergensis: “They’re not so bad—at least they have also good points.”



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This Is What Happens When You Use Rat Poison: Flymageddon

I killed the rats in my basement ceiling. At the time, they were my biggest problem.

Then I found myself in my car one night with the headlights aimed at my back door, hoping to lure a swarm of carrion flies out of the house. Carrion flies, if you’re not familiar, are the kind that lay their eggs on dead things. So then that was my biggest problem.

It all started with a gnawing sound in my basement, in the ceiling above the family room. The steady crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters didn’t bother me much at first; I just turned up the volume on the TV. But then the entire basement began to smell of rat urine, which turns out to smell a lot like people urine. Eventually, it didn’t matter how much Febreze I sprayed; we had hit, as I called it, RATCON 5.

My next step was to push little green blocks of rat poison into the ceiling space behind the recessed lights. This turned out to be a mistake. Not only is rat poison bad for the environment and wildlife, but this tactic also left the sated rats free to scurry into some far corner of the ceiling space to die. An exterminator poked around up there, and shrugged. “Can’t find ’em.” Soon, my basement took on a new odor: eau de dead rat.

For the next week, I slept with my windows wide open for fresh air, and the flimsy lock on my bedroom door set against possible intruders.

But the gnawing stopped. And I celebrated my hard-won victory. I had toughed out the stink, and the worst was past. I thought.

Two weeks later,  I came home from a trip and opened the door to Flymageddon.

The house was filled with giant flies.  I realized instantly that the dead rats had become a breeding ground for blowflies. Blowflies are described by Wikipedia as medium to large flies, but I would describe them more as flying bookends.

Dozens buzzed around the kitchen, thunking into me as I made my way in. I needed a weapon, and I needed one fast. Years ago, Uncle Rocky and Aunt Martha, who live in Abilene, gave me a gag gift in the form of a giant three-foot, turquoise Texas-Size Fly Swatter. Turns out, it was the best gift ever.

So there I was. I gripped the Texas Fly Swatter like a baseball bat and slowly opened the basement door.  I could hear the hum. My pulse was pounding.

Bluebottle fly. Ripanvc
Kinda pretty, actually. The bluebottle fly.

I flipped on the light and saw thousands of big dark flies, each the size of a dime, peppering the walls and window shades. Flies filled the air, and bumped against the ceiling with little buzzing thuds. Suddenly a squadron broke ranks and rushed straight up the basement stairs at me.

Or at least it seemed like they were flying toward me. I was watching a black wave of flies boil out of a light fixture in the ceiling, so I was a little distracted. But I’m pretty sure I made a noise like a creaky hinge, and slammed the door shut.

Now what? No way was I opening that door again without chemical weapons.

So armed with a can of Raid, I cracked open the basement door, stuck my arm in and sprayed a long satisfying ssssssssssssss. Yessssssssssss, I thought as I sprayed.

Now normally, I’m the live-and-let-live, shoo-em-out the door kind of person. So I also tried opening the kitchen door and stirred up a cluster of flies to usher them out. In return, they promptly flew straight for my head. All bets were off.

I needed a plan—and a partner. I was home alone, but that didn’t stop me from dragging my husband Jay into the scene from 500 miles away. I called him on speakerphone blubbering about flies.

The great thing about being married is that you can take turns being brave, and when one of you is freaking out and ready to burn your house down, the other one can spring into action. And even from 500 miles away, Jay sprung. “Go downstairs and open all the windows to let them out,” he instructed. I politely declined. As in, “What?! NO NO NO NO! Not until some of them are dead. Or most of them.”

Jay thought.

“OK,” he said, “Turn off all the lights in the house, and go turn on the car’s headlights. In fact, put the brights on. Then, open the basement door.” Flies, of course, are drawn to light. It’s not entirely clear why some insects fly toward light, but it’s probably why you’ll find flies clustered on windows. (At least at my house you will.)

Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies. Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies.

It sounded like a plan that might work. So I carefully unlocked the basement door from outside; a couple dozen flies hovered between the glass and the window shade. I pushed the door open and ran for the safety of the car.

“Don’t fall and hurt yourself running from flies!” Jay yelled, still on speakerphone. “They can’t hurt you.” At this point, he’s picturing me laid up with a broken leg, a victim of my own horror of animals that don’t even have mouths that can bite.

“I know that, logically,” I said. But when it comes to a swarm, it’s not about logic. Since I write a blog called Gory Details, you might think it should be hard to turn my stomach, but it’s not. There’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I turn out to be entirely average.

So this is how I found myself in my car at 10:30 p.m., watching flies meander out the door and trying to decide how long I could run the brights before the battery died.

On cue, my mother called. Hoping to help, she looked up flies in the encyclopedia and reported that the pupal stage lasts two weeks. (My mother does not use the Internet much.) Her book didn’t say how long the adults live. “Hm, well, anyway, they’ll die eventually,” she said, “if you wait long enough.”

And I waited. The flies have kept coming. Every morning now, I vacuum up the night’s casualties, and every evening I come home to more. The other day, I arrived at work and dropped my purse on my desk, and a fly flew out. To cope, the Texas Fly Swatter and I have created a no-fly zone in my bedroom.

In the meantime, I have learned a few things about my opponents. I have three kinds; one is big with a shiny blue backside and another small and the prettiest green up close. The big blue ones might be the bluebottle fly Calliphora vomitoriaappropriately named—or  Calliphora vicina, the urban bluebottle fly. The little green guys are probably a species of Lucilia, the nice entomologists at bugguide.net told me after I posted photos.

As those petered out, the biggest flies emerged—flesh flies of the genus Sarcophaga. Like sarcophagus. They’re enormous, and they buzz when they fly, and they are still in my house.

My little Lucilia.  Erika Engelhaupt
My little Lucilia.
Erika Engelhaupt

All three have their charms. Lucilia maggots have an amazing ability to eat dead flesh and ignore the living, so they’re used in maggot therapy to eat away dead, infected tissue. This works fantastically, but of course assumes that you can talk someone with, say, an oozing foot ulcer into letting a mass of maggots eat away at their foot—I suppose you say to the person that they’re only going to eat your dead foot.

I thought talking to a forensic entomologist might help me appreciate my new housemates. Sibyl Bucheli studies insects at Sam Houston State University (home to a great criminal justice program) in Huntsville, Texas (home to the busiest execution chamber in the United States). I knew I’d like her when her email arrived with a photo of her wearing a Wonder Woman tiara. (You should also check out her entomology lab’s Harlem Shake video.)

Bucheli told me about the first recorded case of forensic entomology in the 1300s. It involved carrion flies—maybe one of the species zipping around my head as I talked to her. The Chinese lawyer Sung Tzu was investigating a stabbing in a rice field and had all the workers lay out their sickles. Blowflies immediately landed on just one, even though it had been wiped clean, and Sung Tzu knew that the sickle bore traces of blood.

One of Bucheli’s students tested this method, she tells me—and found that blowflies can indeed find a bloodied and wiped-clean surface within minutes, or even seconds.

As for my flies, Bucheli says I’m probably on the second generation by now, at least. The flies have been multiplying, babies growing up and having babies of their own. I suppose it would be sweet, if the family home being handed down wasn’t a dead rat.

What’s more, she gives me bad news about the yellow-orange spots all over my windows. “That’s fly poop,” she says. “Sorry. They’re pooping on your curtains.”

Still, she made me feel a little better about them. For one thing, she’s totally brave about flies, and it made me want to be just like her. Bucheli has been at actual crime scenes, with dead bodies covered in flies. Even then, they don’t bother her. “I feel calm if I’m in a place with a million flies,” she said. “But if I’m in a city with a million people around me, that freaks me out… I understand the flies.”

They’re just being flies—eating, mating, pooping, laying eggs. They aren’t out to get me, or anyone else. “The whole six-legs, four-wings thing is beauty to me,” Bucheli said.

I’m trying to get there. In fact, I only used the Texas Fly Swatter once this morning.

But last night, after I cleared the sofa of dead flies and settled in for an episode of Bones, I heard it. The crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters.

This time, it’s war.

[to be continued]


(Note: I have updated the link to a test for how easily disgusted a person is. It now takes you to the appendix of Valerie Curtis‘ excellent book “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion.”)

A Blog by

Please Welcome Erika Engelhaupt to Phenomena!

Erika only has eyes for you, dino (shot at the Phil Fraley studio, while on assignment for the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Today, Phenomena gets a little spookier as we welcome Erika Engelhaupt to the salon. The name of her blog says it all: In Gory Details, she’ll be bringing you tales from the darker side of science — creepy thrills, macabre reality checks, and stuff for which the term “morbid fascination” aptly applies.

Maybe it has something to do with all the time she spent tromping around in swamps while studying environmental science, earning a couple of master’s degrees and – in her words – publishing “boring science papers.” After that, Erika ditched the science papers and began writing for newspapers, triggering a metamorphosis from scientist to science journalist. Now, in addition to being our newest Pheno-type, Erika is also the online science editor for National Geographic, and will help manage the Phenomena blog network.

I’ve known Erika for a while now (she was one of my editors at Science News), and she’s always seemed so…normal? To celebrate the launch of Gory Details, I asked Erika some questions about where she’s headed.


So what’s this obsession with gory stuff?

I suspect I may have read too many Stephen King novels at a young age. My mom and I would tear them in half down the spine so we could each read half at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed reading about creepy stuff (but no scary movies—I prefer my imagined horrors over Hollywood’s versions). Combine that with a love of science, and I guess you get Gory Details.

How did Gory Details come about?

I was an editor at Science News, and one day I was sitting in my office and looked at a shelf filled with books I had reviewed for the magazine. There were titles like Blood Work, The Killer of Little Shepherds (a fantastic forensic history), and That’s Disgusting. It had never really dawned on me until that point that maybe I had a morbid fascination. Suddenly it just popped into my head—I should write a column on the dark side of science and call it Gory Details.

At the time the magazine was soliciting ideas for news columns, but mine was initially considered too gross for a column. So I had to bide my time for two years until we were launching new blogs, and I got my chance. And it turned out that other people shared my curiosity.

What do you want this blog to be about?

So many things! First, I want to really delve into forensic science, because there’s so much going on right now. We’re at this strange point where there are really amazing high-tech methods being developed to analyze crime, but mostly what police have to work with is very old-school, and actually a lot of basic forensic analyses, like hair analysis, are being questioned — is this stuff even really science?

I’m fascinated by all manner of dead things, too. That includes archaeology, and pretty much anything involving old bones. I’m a sucker for a Neanderthal story, because I love to think about how close we are to our beetle-browed cousins.

Then there is, of course, the gross beat. I ended up writing a lot of stories about pee and poop in the blog previously, and every now and then I would announce a hiatus on bodily functions stories. But then someone would come along with some fascinating thing about fecal transplants or something, and I’d be off to the races with that.

I’d also like to branch out into some other areas that people might not immediately think of as gory, but that fall into the “huh, weird” category. So robots and artificial intelligence, perception (which, trust me, is full of really strange stuff), and the dark side of human nature.  And I’m an environmental scientist by training, so I’m going to claim that environmental nasties are something we need to examine in gory detail too.

Evidence of actual past scientific endeavor. Here's Erika in grad school, studying soil microbial activity in Costa Rica.
Evidence of actual past scientific endeavor: Erika studying soil microbial activity in Costa Rica.

 So…sort of the “eww” beat?

I’m happy to claim the “Eww” beat! When Maryn McKenna joined Phenomena recently with her scare-tastic blog Germination, someone on Twitter pointed out that she was claiming the “oops” beat (since she often covers how we humans have messed up the good thing we had going with antibiotics). And they noted that Ed’s on the “Wow” beat, and Nadia, I think we decided you were the “Boom” beat, right? Or maybe “Oooh”? And if Brian’s “Rock” and Carl’s “Life,” I guess that leaves me with “Eww”!

What are some of the spookier stories you’ve uncovered so far?

Some of my favorites have been ones that pose a “scary thought” kind of question. I really delved into what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in Washington, D.C., where I live and where sometimes the threat of an attack feels quite real. I wrote about my own odds of survival less than a mile from the White House (not terrible, actually) and how to do the math on whether to seek better shelter or stay put.

Also along those lines are questions like “What lives on us after we die?” and “What drives ‘nice’ people to aggression?

One I found chilling in a different way was a story I uncovered about police in Israel who have developed a way to get fingerprints off rocks. They want to use the technique to find and prosecute Palestinians, often kids, who throw stones at Israelis. It’s a sad reminder of all the people hurt by that conflict.

I also love finding really weird stuff in out-of-the-way corners of science. I had great fun with  the story of a researcher who set up a re-enactment of da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa using toy figures and posited that the original and a studio copy may have been made as the world’s first experiment in 3-D imaging. No one knew about this guy’s work, and after I broke the story it went nuts.

I imagine you’ve got a pretty thick skin since you’re used to diving into the world of weird. Is there anything that’s too creepy, scary or gross for you to deal with?

You know, it’s funny—there’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I tested out dead average. I’m not especially hard to gross out. Maybe that’s part of the fun; that I have a very normal response to this stuff.

But to answer your question, I have tried to be careful about writing about gory medical conditions, because I don’t want to come across as making light of people’s very real problems. And as for what I’m personally freaked out by, it’s gotta be crocodiles. They populate my nightmares.

“I took this in Costa Rica, at a bridge where people gather and occasionally throw meat to the crocodiles,” Erika says. “Nightmares for weeks.”



The Undersea Afterlives of Three Little Piggies

Science often answers questions that I never would have thought to ask. For example, what happens to a pig carcass when you leave it on the ocean bottom?

This isn’t science trivia. While scientists know quite a bit about how bodies decompose on land, forensic researchers Gail Anderson and Lynne Bell point out at the start of their new PLoS One study, most of what we know about undersea carcasses comes from studies of whales, porpoises, and sharks. Very little is known about the waterlogged afterlives of mammals that are more like humans in size and anatomy.

To change that, Anderson looked to pigs – often used as proxies for humans in such studies because of their comparable size and skin. In a previous experiment with N. Hobischak, Anderson documented what happened to a trio of freshly-killed pigs that the researchers anchored in the shallows of British Columbia’s Howe Sound. That study outlined what sort of critters came to dine on the pigs, the effects of depth on decomposition, and other factors of breakdown, but there was a problem. The researchers had to dive to gather their data, meaning that they were missing some of the changes in the porcine breakdown. They lacked a continuous picture of what was happening to the pigs. Picking up where the previous study left off, the new research by Anderson and Bell tells a more detailed tale of what happens to such submerged bodies.

At the rate of one pig each year between 2006 and 2008, the researchers lowered three pig carcasses into British Columbia’s Saanish Inlet at a depth of about 313 feet. The choice of location was critical to what eventually unfolded. For most of the year, Anderson and Bell point out, the inlet water is relatively low in oxygen, only replenished in the fall. And yet, despite these hypoxic conditions, the inlet hosts a rich assemblage of marine critters that would eventually play a part in the breakdown. And as a scientific benefit, the inlet is the base site for the Victoria Underwater Network Under Sea (VENUS), equipped with instruments that allowed Anderson and Bell to gain a constant stream of data on temperature, pressure, dissolved oxygen, and other measurements from the study sites.

Three-spot shrimp and a ruby octopus scavenge Carcass 1 on Day 6. From Anderson and Bell, 2014.
Three-spot shrimp and a ruby octopus scavenge Carcass 1 on Day 6. From Anderson and Bell, 2014.

Of course, “carcass deployment” and study presented some unique challenges. Each pig had to be weighted down so that they’d stay within range of the underwater cameras needed to photograph them. (Although this didn’t prevent the first carcass from being dragged out of range by crabs after 23 days.) And the researchers had to think carefully about turning on the camera lights. Some of the little scavengers would scatter when the lights flicked on, although the typically returned very quickly. Even so, to prevent the lights from greatly affecting the habits of the dinner guests, the researchers turned on the camera lights sparingly.

I’ll let Anderson and Bell describe what happened once the first two pigs were in position:

Within minutes of placement, large numbers of Munida quadrispina Benedict (squat lobsters, Family Galatheidae) arrived at Carcass 1 and 2 and began to pick at the skin, attracted to the entire carcass, with some preference for the orifices. Scanning the camera around the area showed that very large numbers of M. quadrispina were actively moving towards the carcasses from all areas.

A Dungeness crab picks at Carcass 2, on Day 4. From Anderson and Bell, 2014.
A Dungeness crab picks at Carcass 2, on Day 4. From Anderson and Bell, 2014.

Three-spot shrimp and Dungeness crabs soon appeared, as well, and the scavengers were so quick with their work that, as the researchers report, “On Day 2, a substantial portion of the rump area of Carcass 1 was removed, and a large flap of skin and flesh from the abdominal area was opened.” Crustaceans did most of the disassembly, although a passing blunt-nose sixgill shark also took a sizable chunk from the pig.

The rest of the paper is full of macabre details delivered in a scientific deadpan that could almost pass as gallows humor – “[O]n Day 4 M. magister was seen pulling the tongue out of the mouth and consuming it” – but the scientific details of the breakdown gave Anderson and Bell a serious look at what happens to bodies under shifting sea conditions.

Pig carcasses 1 and 2 followed a similar pattern. Both dropped at times of relatively low dissolved oxygen, the pigs immediately attracted a horde of shrimp, squat lobsters, and crabs that rapidly dismantled the bodies. Pig carcass 3, however, was lowered at a time of even lower dissolved oxygen. Some squat lobsters showed up at the beginning, but their claws weren’t powerful enough to do anything more than graze the surface of the carcass. Without larger crabs with more powerful snipping apparatus, the squat lobsters left and a furry mat of bacteria grew over the body. The pig lay there almost undisturbed until the oxygen in the water was refreshed. Only then did both invertebrate and vertebrate scavengers make short work of the carcass.

The pigs didn’t just rot away. They were consumed down to the bone. While the first carcass was dragged out of view before the end of the experiment, total skeletonization took 38 days for carcass 2, and 135 days for carcass 3 owing to the long period of stasis due to low oxygen.

The overall pattern was quite different from what Anderson observed in the previous study. In the Howe Sound experiment, the pig carcasses went through a familiar pattern of decomposition that included initial floating, sinking, and “bloat and float” – which is exactly what it sounds like – before finally settling on the bottom. In the new experiment, the pigs didn’t fill up with decompositional gases. The water pressure at their depth prevented them from doing the dead pig’s float. The pigs stayed put unless dragged out of place by the scavengers.

One of the lessons from all this, Anderson and Bell found, is that the arthropod community surrounding a cadaver found at sea isn’t a reliable indicator of when that body entered the water. Anderson and Bell didn’t observe any rigid succession of scavengers that could be used to estimate time of death. Instead, varying oxygen levels dictated the degree of scavenging – skeletonization of carcass 3 took three times as long because of low oxygen conditions at the time the pig entered the water. Translating this to search and rescue efforts, a body that came to rest at a depth more than 200 feet in very low-oxygen conditions will be more likely to be in place and intact because the conditions are inhospitable to scavengers.

And at a much more minute level, studying the damage done by the scavengers can be critical to investigating human bodies that wind up in the ocean. “[I]t is not uncommon for disarticulated human appendages to be recovered washed up on beaches,” Anderson and Bell write, “leading to media speculation of dismemberment and foul play.” But, as the researchers found, scavengers can easily dismember and disarticulate a body, leaving tell-tale damage behind. Understanding how scavengers feed, and how quickly they can alter a body, can be critical to accurately reconstructing marine crime scenes. When authorities think they have a maritime murder on their hands, crabs can be critical in court.


Anderson, G., Bell, L. 2014. Deep coastal marine taphonomy: Investigation into carcass decomposition in the Saanich Inlet, British Columbia using a baited camera. PLoS One. 9 (10): e110710. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110710