If we knew the season in which the sloths died could that help tell us how they died? Does dying in the winter leave traces in fossils that dying in the summer doesn’t? The Iceman Murder case offers an intriguing idea for detecting freezing in fresh tissue. In 1983 Pennsylvania police found a corpse tightly wrapped in plastic bags dumped along a mountain road. Medical examiners performing the autopsy noticed an unusual pattern of decomposition and odor, and suggested to skeptical police that the victim had been kept frozen somewhere since he had disappeared over two years earlier. The examiners had spotted cavities in the victim’s tissues where the doctors hypothesized ice crystals had grow, distorting the surrounding tissue and leaving holes they called “ice crystal artifacts.” Their discovery eventually helped convict a New Jersey contract killer.
I’m wondering: 1) Do ice crystal artifacts form in bone? 2) If so, what do the holes look like and can they be distinguished from the post-mortem recrystallization of apatite that also enlarges the cavities? 3) Is the warping of the bone by the ice different in fresh bone versus weathered bone? 4) Can we distinguish immediate post-mortem freezing from ice artifacts that form in subsequent winters? 5) Would ice crystal artifacts be more likely in one particular bone? 6) Will a thin-section of the bone show them? 7) What other clues does dying in winter leave?
Zugibe, FT and Costello, JT. 1993. The Iceman Murder: One of a series of contract murders. Journal of Forensic Science 38: 1404-1408.