After handling the body of a man who died from blunt force trauma in an apparent vehicle crash, forensic anthropologist Trisha-Jean Mahon turned to the next gurney in the neon-lit room of the mortuary in Johannesburg. Like many corpses there, this one has no identity. “Oh, he has tattoos,” she says, peering closely at the crudely sketched letters on the young man’s left leg. “Fantastic!” Tattoos, DNA and scars are vital clues that Mahon and her mainly female team of forensic scientists collect in a bid to identify the thousands of people who are buried anonymously in SA each year. Most of them are believed to be migrants who’ve come to SA in search of work, in particular to Johannesburg, its economic hub. The huge number of unidentified bodies passing through SA’s mortuaries is a burden on the state and presents a moral dilemma to forensic scientists. Once people are buried in grasslands outside the city, after three months at most, their chances of ever being identified are close t...

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