Consider a hot desert with temperatures between 30-40 degrees Celsius year round and 100 mm of precipitation annually. Suppose some corpses are placed on racks and predators are kept away. Sand is removed if it accumulates on the corpses. What would the corpses look like 30 years later? I imagine that they would not mummify, as there is some rainfall on occasion. Would they be reduced to skeletons? What would the bones look like?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This may not be a world building question, but rather just a science/nature question. Also: "Air burial" is a thing in some desert regions. It's worth looking up if you haven't yet. $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Jan 13, 2021 at 23:13
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Deserts do not have constant temperatures. 30-40 highs, perhaps, but that does not mean it's not bitterly cold at night. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jan 14, 2021 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ Depends which desert, where are you planning to leave them? :-D $\endgroup$
    – Danny
    Jan 14, 2021 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Vultures. Vultures would happen. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2021 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian Drummond "predators are kept away" $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2021 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


After 30 years nothing would remain. The bones would be completely worn away. This article has an in-depth analysis:

J Forensic Sci 1989 May;34(3):607-16.
Decay Rates of Human Remains in an Arid Environment

It indicates that an exposed corpse would be mostly worn down to bone fragments with in 3 years:

Figure 1

As the figure indicates, after 3 years complete skeletal decomposition has already begun. After 30 years there would be nothing left.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yep, OP forgot about wind, which in a desert with a lot of dust around is insanely abrasive, even without water $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 14, 2021 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ What is the significance of the quoted text? $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2021 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ That is the bibliographic reference information (title, author, publication date) for the linked document. $\endgroup$
    – larsks
    Jan 14, 2021 at 15:54

Flies will eat them. Fast.

pig carcass at 11 days


Flies eat meat fast. In a desert like you describe with a little rainfall there will be flies. They will show up within the day. They like it hot. It is nice and wet in a carcass. They will eat these carcasses in no time. Beetles show up eventually and take care of skin and hair.

If you are digging it, the linked wikipedia article shows the sequence and lets you know exactly what insects show up. The article does not say when because that depends. There is a pig carcass shown at each stage of decomposition and if you click the picture it states when the image was made, which is pretty cool. This pig is in the "advanced decay" stage. It has been dead 11 days.

The 5th stage image is from 1 month later and it is just bones.

At 10 years I bet not even that. The sun will be hard on these bones and they will crumble.

But you can get ancient mummies in a desert. Check out this guy. He is 3000 years old and he looks good.


European Celtic mummies found in China

As I understand it he was underground, out of the weather. There is no rain in this desert and no flies. I think the Atacma desert mummies are formed similarly.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Public service announcement: Whatever the Cherchen man was, he was most definitely not a Celt. There have never been any Celts so far east; the eastern limit of Celtic migrations was Galatia is Asia Minor (= Anatolia). Anyway, there was indeed a population speaking Indo-European languages in the general region where the mummy was found: the Tocharians. ("Tocharians" is a conventional name; they probably called themselves kuśiññe or akeññe.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 14, 2021 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ Know what you mean ;o) but I think that good should be in inverted commas - he looks a bit ill to me. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jan 14, 2021 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ The romans supposedly called any barbarian a Celt, so it could fit their definition.... $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2021 at 10:39

After 30 years in a desert all that would remain would be bleached bones. Biological and chemical decomposition would destroy most of the flesh within a few years and would be accelerated by rain which would provide moisture for bacteria to work on. Physical decomposition by way of freeze thaw would also serve to break up the remains.


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