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Human taphonomy: a unique and innovative Master's program launched by UNIL

7 December 2023
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A groundbreaking project, opened to students from all over the world, scheduled for the next 2024-2025 academic year at the University of Lausanne: the FBM School of Biology is launching an innovative programme, quite unique in its kind, combining forensic sciences, biology, geosciences, ethics, and social sciences: Master of Science in Human Taphonomy. Registration opens on the 1st of January 2024.

What is Taphonomy?

Taphonomy focuses on the decomposition of organic matter. It was originally the science of fossils: the term, stemming from taphos -> tomb and nomos-> law, was coined by a Russian paleontologist in the late 1930s.

As for human taphonomy, it concerns everything to the decomposition - or sometimes the non-decomposition - of the human body: Our Master's programme focuses on biological traces, and that's a first, highlights DrSc. Vincent Varlet, the programme’s educational coordinator. Of course, these biological traces are already addressed in other courses in Europe and America, but this is the first Master that makes it its specificity - and it's the first to have this designation.

Insights from the programme

For Vincent Varlet, who is also head of the SHIFT (Swiss Human Institute for Forensic Taphonomy), one of the operational units of CURML (University Center of Legal Medicine, Lausanne-Geneva), this program complements UNIL's forensic offering, as most courses in Criminal Sciences focus on chemical and digital traces.

However, he emphasizes that forensic sciences represent only 50% of the Master’s teachings, which also includes ethical, cultural, political, legal, and museum-related dimensions linked to the human body, not to mention environmental aspects:

"Human taphonomy can be seen as the study of the impact of body decomposition on the environment, and conversely, the impact of the environment on body decomposition. There is a constant back and forth between the two,"

notes Angela Ciuffi, Associate Professor at UNIL and Director of the School of Biology, which hosts the new specialised Master's programme. This is our fourth Master, more specialised than the other three, as it positions itself in a very particular niche and, I think, very useful to society, she adds.

Indeed, many questions await answers: Overall, one might wonder if dying in the 21st century is different from how people died in the past, for instance, in the 19th century, states Vincent Varlet.

Do all "modern" factors such as pharmacopoeia, oncological treatments, implants, the significant increase in chronic diseases like diabetes, and many others, have an impact on the decomposition process?

"We are facing new issues, for example in cemeteries, with bodies decomposing with difficulty, or the emergence of new types of burials.”

A panel of internationally renowned external experts will contribute to the programme. Students will have the opportunity to conduct field studies, relying on resources not only from the FBM but also from other UNIL faculties (such as the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment and the Faculty of Law, Criminal Sciences and Public Administration), as well as resources from the SHIFT, CURML, and CHUV.

How to seize the opportunity

Attending such a program opens the door to numerous career opportunities - whether in forensic sciences, humanitarian aid, the environmental or cultural sector. 

Registrations will open on the 1st of January, 2024, with a deadline until the 30th of April, 2024 for students from the European zone and on the 29th of February, 2024 for students outside the European zone. The Master is open to holders of a Bachelor's degree in Biology, Medicine, or Forensic Sciences, but to apply, they must also demonstrate six weeks of practical experience in the field of taphonomy: The important thing is that applicants have a clear idea of the skills and knowledge they aim to acquire from our programme

The programme, spanning over two years and totaling 120 ECTS credits, will be taught entirely in English and will accept a maximum of 24 students per year.

Discover more details in the original publication, in French, here