Professor Victoria Gibbon


On-Going Research

Human Variation in the Holocene

Forensic Anthropology

Mseleni Joint Disease

Professor Victoria Gibbon joined the Division of Clinical Anatomy and Biological Anthropology in 2016. She is a NRF rated scientist with 38 journal publications and 44 presentations at conferences. In addition to her research and teaching portfolios she is curator of the UCT Human Skeletal Repository. A role that has led her to initiate restitution processes at UCT to return unethically obtained human remains and led to establishment of updated procedures of access and stewardship of human remains at UCT. Here research has shown an interest in ethical practice in relation to ancient DNA and sampling.

As a species, humans have less than 6% genetic variation between them, compared to chimpanzees with 33% and gorillas with 66%, we are genetically uniform. Despite this uniformity, human variation is poorly understood. Intraspecies variation is important as it demonstrates micro-evolutionary processes (mutations, migration and selection) that become advantageous in a given environment. A better understanding of human variability, past and present, is important to understand our adaptive potential as a species in an ever-changing environment. She uses a three-prong approach in her biological anthropological research theoretical, technological and biological. Theoretically she has an integrative perspective and use a biocultural approach. With this approach she tried to explain and explore the genetic and environmental factors responsible for biological variation that allows people to be understood in their own cultural and environmental context. She uses this biological understanding to scrutinise, and challenge biased historical accounts to provide an objective view into past people’s lives from a cultural relativist perspective. To investigate variation, along with traditional methods of analyses, she uses technologically innovative ways of understanding and reconstructing the biology of past peoples.

Her research and teaching interests are primarily in biological anthropology, human variation, forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. Her diverse background and training in anatomical, genetic, medical and anthropological sciences allows her to conduct research on a variety of topics, which provides a multitude of research opportunities for students.

Links to research, media and popular articles can be found at the bottom of this page.

Human variation

One of my primary areas of research focusses on changes in body shape and size through time and space. My focus is principally bioarchaeological which is the application of human skeletal analyses to remains found in an archaeological context, to better understand the mechanisms that drive human variation and how it is displayed biologically in the skeleton. I am particularly interested in how the skeleton has changed over a known time period in response to environmental adaptation and genetic admixture. This research provides a compelling glimpse into  how people lived and allows us to explore  their biological quality of life. I have found that there is more morphological variation in the skeleton than previously thought, but I am also able to question historical accounts of past people and cast them in their own light. Through these areas of research, I maintain and established an active interdisciplinary research program with both national and international collaborations. For more information on these projects click here.

I also have a project on living people aimed at better understanding growth and development in the South African population. Infant growth in South Africa is tracked using the universal growth standard, my PhD student, Liesl Arendse, is assessing the accuracy of this standard for evaluating and tracking healthy growth of South Africans.

Forensic Anthropology: Decomposition, taphonomy and identification

Another primary area of research for me is in the field of forensic anthropology, where my research is primarily focused on forensic identification and taphonomy. The burden of unidentified persons in South Africa is significant. The identification of deceased persons is of great importance for criminal, social, humanitarian, ethical and civil reasons. Identification of the deceased becomes challenging in those involving decomposed, skeletonised or burnt remains. In cases such as these forensic anthropologists and geneticists are often requested to assist reconstruct the biological profile of the individual. When attempting to match a demographic profile to a list of missing persons, an accurate estimate of the persons demographic details (sex, age, ancestry and stature) and an accurate time-since death can reduce the number of suspected candidates and significantly improving the likelihood of victim identification. With identification I have several projects in Forensic genetics done in collaboration with Dr. Laura Heathfield, in addition to morphometric based studies. I have an active forensic taphonomy research group, where my team in collaboration with Dr. Devin Finaughty of Kent University are pushing the global standards for this kind of research. For more information on my forensic anthropology and taphonomy research click here.

Mseleni Joint Disease

Due to my expertise in biological anthropology, genetics and using a holistic perspective for human variability, I was consulted by the late Prof. J Harington (University of the Witwatersrand, SA) to examine the aetiology/ies of Mseleni Joint Disease. It is geographically confined to a remote area in the Maputaland region in northern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. This disease affects most joints but primarily those of the hip. Mseleni joint disease is characterised by two distinct abnormalities, protrusio acetabuli that mainly affects females and increases in frequency with age, and hip dysplasia that is more frequent with age. Despite various avenues of research since its discovery in 1970 its aetiology remains unknown. To better understand the genetics of this disease we initially wrote a review paper summarising the completed work on the condition in attempt to produce genetic targets for treatment and prevention (Joint Bone Spine 77:399-404, 2010). Its socio-economic impacts, the demographics, diet, geology and the genetic background of affected people are reviewed and examination of epigenetic mechanisms and stable isotope analysis of teeth are suggested as a means of providing information on the aetiology of the disease, which I am currently investigating click here.


Research Team

My Research Team 2019

Media Outputs

UCT Collection


Ancient DNA

Human Remains Restitution

Popular articles

Selected Publications

Alpaslan-Roodenberg et al. incld. Gibbon VE 2021. Ethics of DNA research on human remains: five globally applicable guidelines. Nature 599:41-46.

Heathfield L, Haikney T, Mole C, Finaughty C, Zachou AM, Gibbon VE. 2021. Forensic human identification: investigation into tooth morphotype and DNA extraction methods from teeth. Science & Justice 61 (4): 339-344.

Yates J et al. incld. Gibbon VE 2021. Evolution and changing ecology of African hominid oral microbiome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(20):1-11.

Gibbon VE, Morris AG. 2021. UCT Human Skeletal Repository: Its stewardship, history, composition and educational use. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 72(2): 139-147.

Li H, He L, Gibbon VE, Xiao X, Wang B. 2021. Individual Centred social-care approach: Using Computer tomography to assess a traumatic brain injury in an Iron Age individual from China. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1-9.

Gibbon VE. 2020. African ancient DNA research requires robust ethics and permission protocols. Nature Reviews Genetics

Miles K, Finaughty DA, Gibbon VE. 2020. A review of experimental design in forensic taphonomy: moving towards forensic realism. Forensic Sciences Research 1-11

Finaughty DA, Spies MJ, Pead J, Gibbon VE. 2020. Automation: A golden ticket for taphonomic research? Forensic Science International 312: 110276

Gibbon VE, Davies B. 2020. Holocene Khoesan health: a biocultural analysis of cranial pathology and trauma. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1-10.

Finaughty D, Spies M, Pead J, Gibbon VE. 2020. Automation: A golden ticket for taphonomic research? Forensic Science International.

Spies MJ, Finaughty DA, Friedling LJ, Gibbon VE. 2020. The effect of clothing on decomposition and vertebrate scavengers in cooler months of the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa. Forensic Science International 309:110197.

Tawha T, Dinkele E, Mole C, Gibbon VE. 2020. Assessing zygomatic shape and size for estimating sex and ancestry in a South African sample. Science & Justice 60: 284-292.

Dinkele, ES, Ballo R, Fredlund V, Ramesar R, Gibbon V. 2020. Mseleni joint disease: an endemic arthritis of unknown cause. The Lancet Rheumatology 2(1): e8-e9.

Baliso A, Finaughty C, Gibbon VE. 2019. Identification of the deceased: use of forensic anthropology at Cape Town's busiest medico-legal laboratory. Forensic Science International: Reports 1:100042.

Finaughty C, Gibbon VE, Speed B, Heathfield L. 2019. A pilot study investigating DNA recovery from teeth in a South African natural marine environment. Forensic Science International: Genetics Supplement Series

Mazengenya P, Mokoena P, Billings BK, Bidmos M, Gibbon VE. 2019. Development of discriminant functions to estimate sex in upper limb bones for mixed ancestry South Africans. Science and Justice 59(6): 660-666.

Forbes MNS, Finaughty DA, Miles KL, Gibbon VE. 2019. Inaccuracy of accumulated degree day models for estimating terrestrial post-mortem intervals in Cape Town, South Africa. Forensic Science International 296: 67-73.

Gibbon VE, Buzon MR. 2018. A diachronic examination of biomechanical changes in skeletal remains from Tombos in ancient Nubia. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 69: 158-166. DOI: 10.1016/j.jchb.2018.07.005

Spies M, Gibbon VE, Finaughty D. 2018. Forensic taphonomy: Vertebrate scavenging in the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa. Forensic Science International 290: 62-69.

Spies M, Finaughty D, Gibbon VE. 2018. Forensic taphonomy: Scavenger-induced scattering patterns in the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa. Forensic Science International 10.1016/j.forsciint.2018.06.015

Gibbon VE, Carlson K, Grimoud AM, Jashashvili, T. 2018. Use of high resolution computed tomography to diagnose ante-mortem dental root fractures in archaeological samples. International Journal of Paleopathology 22:143-148.

Grimoud AM, Gibbon VE, Ribot I. Predictive factors for alveolar fenestration and dehiscence. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 68(3): 167-175.

Grimoud AM, Gibbon VE. Dental wear quantity and direction in Chalcolithic and Medieval populations from Southwest France. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 68: 1-9.

Gibbon VE, Porter TA, Wu X, Liu W. 2016. Craniometric examination of Longxian and Qi Li Cun archaeological sites to assess population continuity in ancient northern China. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 67: 369-383.

Gibbon VE, Buzon M. 2016. Morphometric assessment of the appendicular skeleton in samples from Tombos in Upper Nubia. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 26: 324-336.

Milner BL, Penny CB, Gibbon VE, Kay P, Ruff P. CD133/EpCAM cancer stem cell markers of tumour stage in colorectal cancer cells. Tissue Science and Engineering 6(143): 1-4 (rank 13/24; impact factor 4.3; citations: GS:5; WOS:0; S:0). DOI:10.4172/2157-7552.1000143

Gibbon VE, Grimoud AM. 2014. Dental pathology, trauma and attrition in a Zambian Iron Age Sample: A macroscopic and radiographic investigation. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 24: 439-458.

Gibbon VE, Gallagher A, Huffman TN. 2014. Bioarchaeological analysis of Iron Age human skeletons from Zambia. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 24: 100-110.

Xing, S, Gibbon V, Clarke R, Liu W. 2013. Geometric populations. Anthropological Science 121(1): 1-11.

Gibbon VE, Harington JS, Penny CB. 2010. Mseleni Joint Disease: a potential model of epigenetic chondroplasia. Joint Bone Spine 77: 399-404.

Bidmos MA, Gibbon VE, Štrkalj G. 2010. skeletal remains in South Africa. The South African Journal of Science 106: 29-34 (rank 30/64; impact factor 1.453; citations: GS:30; WOS:9; S:11). DOI: 10.4102/sajs. v106i11/12.238

Gibbon VE, Štrkalj G, Paximadis M, Ruff P, Penny C. 2010. The sex profile of skeletal remains from a cemetery of Chinese indentured labourers in South Africa. South African Journal of Science 106(7/8): 65-68 (rank 30/64; impact factor 1.453; citations: GS:4; WOS:1; S:2). DOI: 10.4102/sajs. v106i7/8.191

Gibbon VE, Penny CB, Ruff P, Štrkalj G. 2009. Minimally invasive bone extraction method for DNA analyses. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139: 596-599.

Gibbon VE, Paximadis M, Štrkalj G, Ruff P, Penny CB. 2009. Novel methods of molecular sex identification from skeletal tissue using the amelogenin gene. Forensic Science International: Genetics 3: 74-79.

Štrkalj G, Wilkinson AT, Gibbon VE. human variation: can education change students’ attitudes towards ‘race’? Glasnik Etnografskog Institute SANU 55(1): 253-258 (Citations: GS:3; WOS:0; S:0). DOI: 10.2298/GEI0701253S

Štrkalj G,Gibbon VE. 2007. The Race Concept in Contemporary Biological Anthropology. In: Bodzsár ÉB, Zsákai A. (Eds) New Perspectives and Problems in Anthropology. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 37-46.