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 21 022 murder cases reported across South Africa from April 2018 to March 2019 (SAPS, 2019). The City of Cape Town Metropole alone had 3157 murders reported in 2019 (SAPS, 2019). 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. My research focuses primarily on methods of identifying human remains and forensic taphonomic studies.


In addition to social and criminal justice, identifying the dead allows closure and understanding for the living, and is considered an important aspect of population health. For these reasons, there is a global drive to improve methods of forensic identification internationally. Locally significant research analysing FACT casework has been conducted to discern the extent that unidentified persons are an issue in the Cape; identify populations most at risk of being unidentified; the locations where most unidentified bodies were recovered; identify and determine the applicability of the methods routinely employed in estimating demographic profiles of the local population (FSIR 1: 100042, 2019). This research is useful for the development of intervention strategies to reduce the number of unidentified bodies and research focused on building demographic standards for southern African populations and specifically targeting ones that work well in the Cape. Considering the diverse genetic, cultural and ancestral composition of the population, there is pertinent need to establish innovative and novel techniques to assist in identification. Biological parameters (age, ancestry, sex and stature) are assessed to assist with identification although age, stature and sex estimation are sensitive to ancestry. Therefore, forensic anthropologists ensure that these standard methods and techniques are reliable and relevant. Novel techniques within the field of biological anthropology enable quantification of morphology. This has included investigating the use of the geometric morphometric properties of the zygoma for estimating ancestry in a Cape Town population (Sci & Just 60: 284-292, 2020).

In addition to developing demographic standards, my research has explored the use of DNA in identifying the dead. Currently, DNA is the golden standard in confirming identity and therefore is often done concurrently with forensic anthropological investigation. For my PhD, undertaken at the University of Witwatersrand, I combined these two ideas and developed novel molecular sex determination methods optimal for human forensic and archaeological skeletal remains. As destructive sampling should be avoided when dealing with human remains in genetic studies, I developed a new minimally invasive bone extraction method (Am J Phys Anthropol 139: 596-599, 2009). Additionally, I developed two novel systems of molecular sex identification suitable for skeletal material using the Amelogenin gene (Forensic Sci Int: Gene 3: 74-79, 2009). Subsequently, this method was implemented on the remains of Chinese indentured laborers in South Africa (S Afr J Sci 106: 65-68, 2010). Further to this work, in collaboration with a marine forensic taphonomic research project and A/Prof. Heathfield in the Division of Forensic Medicine (UCT), we investigated optimisation of DNA extraction methods for samples exposed to seawater; and examined DNA degradation in this environment (Forensic Sci Int Genet Suppl Ser 7 (1): 580-581, 2019). The oceanic environment is particularly under-researched world-wide within the field of forensics, and in Cape Town, there are numerous marine wash-up cases annually which are challenging to identify. Therefore, research in this field is important and A/Prof. Heathfield and I continue to work together to better understand DNA preservation in this environment and improve methods of DNA extraction for samples exposed to seawater.

Forensic Taphonomy


  • Finaughty D, Spies M, Pead J, Gibbon VE. 2020. Automation: A golden ticket for taphonomic research? Forensic Science International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2020.110276
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2020.110197
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scijus.2020.01.003
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2665-9913(19)30104-3
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsir.2019.100042
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsigss.2019.10.097
  • Finaughty D, Morris AG. 2019. Precocious natural mummification in a temperate climate (Western Cape, South Africa). Forensic Science International 303:109948. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.109948
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scijus.2019.06.007
  • 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 (rank 5/16; impact factor 2.271; citations: GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.01.008
  • Spies M, Gibbon VE, Finaughty D. 2018. Forensic taphonomy: Vertebrate scavenging in the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa. Forensic Science International 290: 62-69 (rank 5/16; impact factor 2.271; citations: GS:1; WOS:0; S:1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2018.06.022
  • Spies M, Finaughty D, Gibbon VE. 2018. Forensic taphonomy: Scavenger-induced scattering patterns in the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa. Forensic Science International . DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2018.06.015