A skeleton appearing in a grave.
Following the recent discovery of mass graves on Glenroy farm in Dududu (KZN) some months ago, the question arose as to whether the scene should be handled as a forensic (crime scene) or anthropological/archaeological case.
While a commission of inquiry has been established, it is being treated as forensic case in the first instance until otherwise determined and as such currently falls under the jurisdiction of the SAPS forensics unit while they conduct their preliminary investigations.
But what exactly is the difference between a forensic and an anthropological/archaeological case when investigating human remains?
In a forensic case the responsibility for the investigation of deaths due to unnatural causes lies with the Forensic Pathology Service in the province where the incident occurred and under the Inquests Act (Act 58 of 1959), this Service makes provision for the rendering of medico-legal investigation of the cause of death and serves the judicial process.
Up until 2006 this function was performed by, and fell under, the SAPS. As stipulated by the National Health Act (Act 61 of 2003), the operational management of the medico-legal laboratory facilities was subsequently transferred to the different provincial Departments of Health.
In an anthropological case, jurisdiction over inadvertently discovered human remains is governed by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) which stipulates that all discoveries of human remains should be reported to the local SAPS and the relevant Heritage Resources Agency.
Human remains identified by the Act, or proclaimed by the minister of Arts and Culture, should be reported to the South African Heritage Resources Agency Burial Grounds and Graves Unit. Jurisdiction, that is, whether the remains are forensic in nature or of heritage value, and whether the cause of death was non-natural and judicially relevant, is then assigned after consultation between officials.
As a general rule, although specified exceptions to this are indicated in the National Heritage Resources Act, human remains older than 60 years are not forensic, and remains older than 100 years are considered to be archaeological.
The National Heritage Resources Act also identifies categories of human remains, such as Victims of Conflict (referring to victims of the pre-1994 political violence in South Africa), which are classified as human rights abuses and deserving of special investigation and commemoration.
What is forensic anthropology?
Forensic anthropology is a specialist field that deals with the evidence that can be collected from human remains – both hard tissue in the form of dry bones and soft tissue in the form of dried flesh from dried up or mummified bodies.
A forensic anthropologist has detailed knowledge of anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the human skeleton, since the bones are usually all that remains when a forensic anthropologist is called in to identify a body.
What is a forensic anthropologist able to discern in respect of discovered remains that will aid the investigation?
Forensic anthropologists are able to reconstruct information surrounding the events that lead to the preservation of the discovered remains and call this the study of ‘taphonomy’, which includes the evidence of death, and the accumulation and preservation of bones over time.
Forensic anthropologists speak of four taphonomic periods in relation to a dead individual:
- the ante-mortem period, which covers the whole of the time before the death of the person
- the peri-mortem period, which is around the time of death
- the post-mortem period which includes the time between death and discovery
- the post-recovery period which includes the process of recovery, analysis and storage of the bony evidence.
Each period provides different contexts for enquiry. During the ante-mortem period (before death), the skeleton is living and records its own details of growth and development.
These can be used to develop a biological profile of the individual and help in securing identification.
The peri-mortem period is obviously important because it includes the events around the death and the cause of death.
However, the post-mortem period is important as well because it gives the time context of the crime by revealing information about the post-mortem interval (PMI). Each and every event after the discovery needs to be recorded as part of the ‘chain of custody’ so that there are no questions about the data when the case is discussed in court.
How can forensic anthropologists estimate sex and age?
By examining the skeletal remains, an anthropologist can estimate whether they are from a male or female.
A skeleton’s overall size and sturdiness give some clues. Within the same population, males tend to have larger, more robust bones and joint surfaces, and more bone development at muscle attachment sites.
Pelvic differences between males and females.
However, the pelvis is the best sex-related skeletal indicator, because of distinct features adapted for childbearing.
The skull also has features that can indicate sex, though slightly less reliably.
Determining how old a person was when they died is much more difficult than estimating their sex. The estimation of age at death involves observing morphological changes (changes in structure) in the skeletal remains and comparing it to what is known about chronological changes (changes that happen as we get older) that occur in the skeleton.
Friedling, J. (2012). What the bones can tell us. QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.
Groen,W.J.M., Márquez-Grant, N., Janaway, R. (2015). Forensic Archaeology: A Global Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell.
Morris, A. (2012). What is forensic anthropology? QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.