If Madeleine was killed and her body was deposited on the surface of the ground in the Algarve, what is the likelihood that her corpse would be found? As she has not been found, that leads on to consideration of body decomposition in the Algarve. This is purely hypothetical re Madeleine’s possible demise, but reality permits a reasoned analysis.
I know of two relevant named cases – Michael Price, who disappeared and was found on the surface of the ground in England, and Luís Miguel Grilo, who disappeared and was found on the surface of the ground in Avis, to the east of Lisbon.
This article focuses instead on two unnamed males found after suicide by hanging, in Italy. I have included one photo of human body decomposition that is relevant to this analysis. If you are easily upset by such graphics, please stop reading this post now.
The norm for studying human body decomposition in scholarly circles appears to be to use pigs as a substitute. These are thought to decompose in a manner similar to human cadavers. In this Italian report however, the dead bodies were both young male suicides, with death by hanging.
The full article is in English in the journal Forensic Sciences Research, at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20961790.2017.1418622
Both bodies were found 34 days after death (PostMortem Interval – PMI). Both were in isolated wooded areas. But the decomposition had proceeded in quite different ways.
In the first case, the body had remained suspended, about 1m above the ground. This reduced the number of insect maggots able to access the body – they dropped off onto the ground. The upper torso was unclothed, and that in turn had led to drying out (dessication by sun and wind) and mummification.
I see no reason to suspect Madeleine McCann was suspended, so this first case is of limited interest, merely highlighting the differences that occur compared with a body lying on the surface of the ground, at a different ambient temperature.
In the second instance, the head had come clean off the torso, so both head and body were lying on the ground. This separation was attributed to insect activity, which starts with the soft parts of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, and proceeds down the throat.
In this case the body was fully clothed, but insects had had complete access to to the corpse at higher ambient temperatures, and the remains were nearly skeletal.
The decomposition process depends on ambient temperature, and a nearby weather station recorded an average of 25.1C, a high of 36.0C and a low of 12.0C for the 34 days in question. The key measure used is accumulated degree days (ADD), and for this case where putrefaction was the driver, the ADD score was significantly higher than that for the mummified one (dessication). In plain English, it was warmer over the 34 days after death.
I am no expert on insects, so I cannot say whether insect types in Italy are similar to those in the Algarve. However, the report rattles off several insect types as if these are fairly standard in human cadaver decomposition. So I am working with that assumption for now, at least until further reading confirms or changes this.
The four relevant examples I am aware of (the two here, plus Grilo and Price) are all lacking in detail regarding body discovery. The only scrap of knowledge I can garner is that discovery was not the result of large-scale predator activity. At the risk of sounding flippant, there were no buzzards circling in the air, hovering over a corpse. Until I can ascertain the precise reasons for discovery, it also seems unlikely that this was associated with insect activity.
In the case of the two Italian suicides, it appears that remoteness was a key factor in selecting the sites, which may explain why the bodies went undiscovered for 34 days after death.
One other point in the report that strikes me as significant is the difference between scientific test conditions, where temperature is controlled and steady, and real life, where the temperature fluctuates significantly over the course of 24 hours.
My Portelas Body Farm is open to the elements, so I will have a real-life 24 hour fluctuating cycle, but that means I have no actual control over the average temperature, the high, the low, or the accumulated degree days measure.
It’s very early days on this particular analysis, but so far, it suggests that the search conducted by the GNR for a body in the week following Madeleine’s disappearance was unlikely to find a corpse simply deposited on the ground in a remote location.
What I need to check next is on the insect populations in the Algarve in general, and in the Portelas Body Farm (aka my back yard) in particular.