Good News: We Finally Know What Dead Humans Smell Like


The heady cocktail of scents emanating from a rotting corpse will probably never make your list of top 10 favorite smells, but according to new studies, knowing exactly what death smells like—apples and berries, allegedly—could make finding corpses quicker and easier, potentially augmenting the use of cadaver dogs with an “electronic nose.”

According to Science, the study of what humans really smell like after they die is still fairly new. A breakthrough, however, has made it more clear to researchers exactly what separates humans from other animals. And while the smell we produce after we die is most closely related to the scents given off by a dead pig, scientists are finding ways to distinguish human death scents from those of our porcine friends. How? By testing the smell of dead animals (including humans) under identical conditions:

In 2010 the Belgian Disaster Victim Identification Team asked analytical chemist Eva Cuypers and her forensic toxicology lab at the University of Leuven in Belgium for help finding the best way to train cadaver dogs to pick out human scents. Cuypers’s graduate student Elien Rosier started by putting tissue samples and organs from six autopsied corpses in jars in a lab closet. The jars’ screw caps, which let in some air, had stoppered holes that allowed her to periodically take samples of the gases building up inside. She set up other jars with pig, mouce, mole, rabbit, turtle, frog, sturgeon, or bird remains. Pig remains in particular have often been used in past decomposition studies because of their similarities to human bodies (which are often hard to come by): They have the same microbes in their guts, the same percentage of body fat, and similar hair as people. But it was not clear whether the decomposition process was the same because the two species had never been studied under identical conditions.

What studies like this have found is that there are eight compounds found in pigs and humans that separate them from other animals, and five esters—compounds that make up a large portion of animal fats, according to Science—that separate humans from pigs. But even with that knowledge, we’re still at the very beginning of figuring out exactly what death smells like. That’s because the samples used in Cuypers’ study are specific tissues and organs, not full decomposing human beings. But don’t worry, Cuypers and her team are working on that, too.

“The next step in our research is to see whether the same compounds are found in buried, full decomposing bodies in the field and to see whether dogs trained on the mixture respond more specific[ally] to human decomposing bodies.” If this cocktail passes muster, the find could pave the way for developing an electronic nose that can do what dogs do, she adds.

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