Durban - DNA testing could help identify the bodies found in mass graves on a KwaZulu-Natal farm - but only if living relatives came forward for tissue samples to be compared, said a genetics expert.
The graves, which were discovered on Glenroy farm in Dududu, on the South Coast, months ago, were announced by the KwaZulu-Natal government at the weekend.
Director of the DNA Project, Dr Carolyn Hancock said DNA was probably the only reliable way of identifying bodies in mass graves where the remains were no longer recognisable or identifiable. But she cautioned that it would be a complex process.
She said DNA samples would be collected at the mortuary by a forensic pathologist.
If the bodies were badly decomposed, the DNA would largely be taken from bones.
“With specialised DNA analyses, DNA will be able to be obtained from such bones even after prolonged time periods. As everyone has a different and unique DNA profile, their DNA can be used to identify them.”
Hancock explained that the skeletons’ DNA would need to be compared to that of close relatives of the deceased.
“So one challenge will be obtaining DNA samples from these relatives (who will need to come forward as having a family member who ‘disappeared’).”
In the absence of any living relatives, it would not be possible to identify the deceased, she said.
Close relatives would be needed as a point of reference because they would have similar DNA profiles to those of the deceased.
“The closer the relative, the more similar the DNA will be.”
Hancock said that where skeletons were involved, the process was “complex”.
“(It) will thus be time consuming and be conducted by experts in this specific area. It may therefore take some time as many tests may have to be repeated to verify and validate the results.”
She also emphasised the importance of collecting every piece of evidence, no matter how small.
“As I (said), the DNA analysis procedure is possible but very complex. In addition to DNA, forensic investigators will be looking for any clues of the deceased to identify them as well as determine issues such as the time of their death.”
Hancock explained: “A bus ticket may, for example, be dated. A button could be identified by a relative as being part of a piece of clothing worn by the relative…”
The number of bodies has been reported as 100, but this figure has not been confirmed.
University of Witwatersrand forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology expert, Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, said priority had to be given to finding out if the scene was a forensic case (a crime scene) or an archaeological one.
“For now it will be forensic until otherwise determined and will fall under the jurisdiction of the police’s forensics unit. We are watching with interest to see what the preliminary investigations will reveal.”
He said that seemingly small items and trace evidence would need to be collected in an effort to identify the bodies.
The services of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists could be enlisted later.
South Africa has only three of these experts, including Randolph-Quinney.
“South Africa has a history of not doing forensic work well. The Oscar Pistorius case is an example that comes to mind. The area needs to be restricted in terms of access and treated and excavated as an archeological site.”