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As you pointed out, taphonomy is critical to understanding how animal and human remains decay in different environments, and how they are represented in the archaeological record. Far from being a purely academic exercise, taphonomic study has immediate, real-life applications. Biological anthropologists often perform taphonomic studies on human remains, and use their findings to assist in forensic investigations. “Body farms,” for example, are built especially for experiments of this kind. The University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, in Knoxville, TN, was the first such institution; it is a 2.5 acre wooded plot, where bodies are intentionally placed in a wide variety of depositional contexts and left to decompose. This way, forensic anthropologists can study bodies at different stages of decomposition, as well as learning about the effects of different environmental processes. Their research is invaluable to many forensic investigations, whose findings often echo the experiments performed at the Body Farm.
If you’d like to learn more, the UT Body Farm was the subject of a National Geographic special, which you can watch here: