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.

Taphonomy (derived from the Greek for “burial law”) was coined in 1940 by Efremov who defined it as, “…the study of the transition of animal remains from the biosphere to the lithosphere.” In essence, it is the study of the preservation of biological material over long periods of time. Accordingly, it has found a natural home in the fields of archaeology, palaeontology, and biological anthropology. The principles of taphonomy may, however, be applied to shorter timescales, typically in forensic cases (<50 years). Here, the goal is understanding the decomposition process of the remains in question to help inform reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding death and estimate the time-since-death (AKA: the post-mortem interval, or PMI). To obtain such an understanding, forensic taphonomists have been studying the decomposition of both animal and human remains since the late 1950s. This has provided insight into the varied roles for a diverse array of decomposers and the environmental variables which affect them. One of the key discoveries has been the environmental specificity of decomposition. This has triggered a global research enterprise for establishing biogeographically specific data on decomposition, especially in countries where the need is greatest.

With more than 20,000 murders per year, South Africa is one of those countries, and Cape Town is the epicentre, contributing one fifth of the national total, ~9% of whom go unidentified every year. Being able to determine the PMI may improve the chances of successfully identifying these victims of crime and tragic circumstances. Towards achieving this, between 2014 and 2016, Dr Devin Finaughty established the first baseline data on terrestrial decomposition in two of the most forensically significant habitats in Cape Town for his PhD under the supervision of Professor Emeritus Alan Morris – laying the foundations for understanding terrestrial decomposition in Cape Town’s globally unique biome. Among the novel discoveries were evidence of a previously unknown mechanism for precocious natural mummification in temperate climates, identification of extensive scavenging by Cape grey mongoose, and seasonal succession patterns of forensically significant insects in the Western Cape.

Professor Morris also co-supervised the sister project to Dr Finaughty’s which ran in tandem: Belinda Speed’s marine decomposition study in False Bay. This multi-year in-situ study has not only established world-first data on shallow-water marine decay but contributed important knowledge for helping Cape Town’s forensic practitioners investigate and resolve the many forensic cases which wash up on the City’s shores each year.

Both projects have spawned new research streams which have grown considerably in scope and influence under the guidance of

Professor Victoria Gibbon. On the terrestrial side in collaboration with Dr. Finaughty (Kent University), great strides have been made in characterising the scavenger role of the Cape grey mongoose and determining the magnitude of their influence on the decomposition process. PhD student, Max Spies, has played an integral part in this research stream, and it is set to grow further as part of a national collaboration with UNISA-based ecologist and camera trap expert, Dr Trevor McIntyre. Max remains a member of the research group and is presently investigating the effect of clothing and environmental carrion biomass load on decomposition in Cape Town. As a long-term tandem project, the time interval for osteological bleaching and degradation of clothing is also being investigated. Finally, together with Dr Finaughty – now based in the UK – the research group is developing full automation of taphonomic data recording – a world-leading research enterprise.