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Forensic Anthropology

A serious issue faced in South Africa is the resolution of crime, one matter arising being the identification of deceased individuals. South Africa has a high number of missing and murdered people, with 18673 cases of murder across South Africa in 2016 (SAPS, 2017). The City of Cape Town Metropole has high population density often accompanied by poor socioeconomic status. These factors contribute to the high murder rate in Cape Town; there were 3696 recorded cases of murder in the greater metropolitan zone in 2016 (SAPS, 2017). The challenges faced in identifying these remains are not only attributed to excessive caseloads, but also due to high volumes of decomposed, burnt, and skeletonised remains entering mortuaries, often lacking formal identification. With Forensic Anthropology Cape Town (FACT) at the University of Cape Town we apply our knowledge to assist the South African Police and Forensic Pathology Services with identification of decomposed and burnt remains.

Since my arrival at UCT I have begun a research program through student projects in Forensic Anthropology. I am interested in building demographic standards for southern African populations and specifically targeting ones that work well in the Cape. Tafadzwa Tahwa for her masters is exploring the use of the geometric morphometric properties of the zygoma for estimating ancestry in the Cape Town population.

In addition, due to the work of Prof. Alan Morris’s PhD students Devin Finaughty and Belinda Speed whom are examining decomposition in Cape Town; I am expanding my research focus into these areas. Due to the high case load there is great need for taphonomic research in relevant habitats, to improve the understanding of local decomposition (terrestrial and oceanic) and to facilitate better forensic identification.

The study into terrestrial decomposition has greatly aided in our forensic case work, especially the results of mummification, decomposition rates, scavenging and scattering. Scavenging by the Cape Grey mongoose was first identified in the PhD study by Devin Finaughty and he established decomposition rates for Cape Town. Scavenging and scatter was further investigated by an Honour’s student, Max Spies. Further terrestrial decomposition studies will be conducted in 2018, with Max comparing the effect of clothed vs unclothed pig carcasses on the rate of decomposition for his masters. We are exploring full automation of data recording, assessing the time interval for osteological bleaching and degradation of clothing.
The oceanic environment is particularly under-researched world-wide within the field of forensics. Belinda Speed, a PhD student at UCT, has done the first study on understanding oceanic decomposition in False Bay, Cape Town. Forensic cases where bodies have washed ashore are challenging to identify, not only because the timing and sequencing events of the decomposition process is not known, but, DNA extraction from samples is also problematic, if not impossible. For her masters project, Chandra Longden-Thurgood investigated molecular degradation within teeth samples exposed to this environment. Through this, she explored optimising a DNA extraction workflow and assessed DNA recovery from tooth samples submerged for different lengths of time and in different seasons. We are looking to expand this into a PhD project, the first of its kind to use human samples in an oceanic taphonomic study within Southern Africa.