/ 12 December 2022

Forensic anthropologists can help the state deal with the escalating numbers of unidentified bodies

Douniamag Safrica Morgue Health Forensic
Families have asked the Congress of  Traditional Leaders and the Human Rights Commission to intervene after waiting years to bury their loved ones. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

The number of unidentified bodies has reached the point of a humanitarian crisis. 

One medico-legal mortuary, Salt River, has reported dealing with about 4 000 bodies a year, with nearly 10% of these remaining unidentified. In Gauteng, it is estimated that one in every 10 bodies remain unidentified, equating to thousands of unidentified people a year. 

How we treat the dead, burying the unidentified en masse, reflects the ill health of our society. Identification of the deceased is a human right and the main purpose of a medico-legal death investigation. 

Athi Baliso, one of my students, has published on the reasons for the high number of unidentified people in South Africa, and how forensic anthropologists can assist in such cases. 

Through a recent South African forensic anthropological case study we illustrate the potential value and merit of interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration in forensic casework. The case study illustrated the limitations of the role of a forensic anthropologist in casework and the investigative process for identification. 

Academically the status of forensic anthropology is well established, but those in the higher education sector are limited with respect to their capacity of time to assist in casework, and the state allocates a limited budget for specialist analyses by qualified professionals. 

There is local capacity, willingness, and expertise to provide solutions, but without government support in the form of recognition and policy, our effect as forensic anthropologists will continue to be limited, minor and untapped. 

The Regulations Regarding the Rendering of Forensic Pathology Services make provision for forensic anthropologists (as “qualified professionals”) to be invited to participate in postmortem examinations but do not clearly delineate the scope of their role. Nor does it explicitly provide for their attendance at the death scene. 

This results in a paucity of field-specific and standardised guidelines for local practice and it creates confusion regarding the mandate and extent of the forensic anthropologists’ investigative role. 

Provincial independence of the Forensic Pathology Service and the personal preference of the police and/or forensic pathologists with respect to requesting this service contribute to this confusion. 

South Africa is an international anomaly. Many countries have specific legal frameworks for forensic anthropological casework, which facilitates the discipline’s growth beyond the “traditional” role in forensic medico-legal death investigations, where consideration of the circumstances surrounding an individual’s death (the manner of death), inclusive of timing (postmortem interval) and postmortem alteration of the body, are now commonplace in the field, and highly valued. 

This can be attributed to the complexity that some cases pose, requiring interdisciplinary collaboration and the ability to draw on diverse knowledge. In this paper, using a recent case study, we illustrate the need and value of an interdisciplinary approach to certain forensic cases in South Africa. 

We also advocate for national and formal recognition of forensic anthropology as a discipline in medico-legal death investigations and its value to assist in identifying the missing and murdered. 

The scope of forensic anthropology has evolved in considerable breadth and complexity. The holistic approach with knowledge from diverse disciplines of study may prove advantageous, especially where investigative resources are limited. 

The formalisation of forensic anthropology would facilitate a collaborative response among stakeholders (including the South African Police Service and Forensic Pathology Services) to improve forensic identification. 

Since the early 2000s there has been an expansion of higher education, and formal programmes dedicated to the training, development, and research of forensic anthropology in South Africa. Programmes have increasing enrolments every year and have resulted in a plethora of research to improve local medico-legal death investigation practice. 

Despite this, and because it is not formally endorsed or funded, the inclusion of forensic anthropology in medico-legal death investigations is ad hoc and based on discretionary inclusion. 

There are also no national standards of practice in the country, unlike the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Until formalisation is achieved, territoriality and poor communication will continue to prevent the full potential and realisation of the impact of forensic anthropology in case resolution. 

The absence of structure also limits career opportunities for well-trained and experienced experts, who often leave South Africa contributing to the loss of local expertise. 

The burden of death and high caseloads in the country would result in job creation. South Africa had 19 972 murders in the 2020-21 financial year and was the 10th highest country for homicides globally in 2017 with 36 per 100 000 people.

We predict there is potential for 10 forensic anthropologists in the South African Forensic Pathology Services alone. 

An advantage of this would be a reduction of the work and caseload burden on individual forensic pathologists — a position in critical shortage and in high demand. 

Additionally, in accordance with Daubert standards the formal recognition of the discipline, would force the development of nationally adhered-to standard operating procedures and would provide an avenue for the inclusion of these data and information into the judicial system. Formal recognition would create the requirement for forensic anthropology to occur within Forensic Pathology Services. 

Associate professor Victoria Gibbon is a biological anthropologist based at the department of human biology in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.