Over 1k skeletons in the closet: varsity project is digitising SA history
A project to digitise the century-old human skeletal collection at the University of Cape Town sheds light in the darkest corners
Dr Victoria Gibbon stretches out her hand to one of the small wooden drawers along the wall. It looks like a card-index system in an old library.
"This individual is one of my favourite skeletons," she says, retrieving a massive femur. "He had gigantism. He is so large that we needed two boxes for his bones. He stood over 2m tall."
As with the other skeletons in this collection, the man's skull is kept separately. "The skulls are far more fragile," she says, placing the femur back in its box as if it were a piece of precious jewellery.
In the company of a biological anthropologist amid the skeletons of 1,021 people, death is beautiful.
The bones line the path between science and story: a cyclops skull in a glass display cabinet is a natural masterpiece. Conjoined twins hold each other in a bony embrace before a birth that never was.
The bones line the path between science and story: a cyclops skull in a glass display cabinet is a natural masterpiece
Gibbon, who not only curates the collection but also does research and lecturing in the division of clinical anatomy and biological anthropology, recently digitised the University of Cape Town (UCT) human skeletal collection, bringing a handwritten catalogue dating from the 1920s into the 21st century.
That was how she discovered that 11 skeletons had been unethically given to the university by a farmer near the small Karoo dorpie of Sutherland.
These Khoisan people were forced into labour on a farm where they lived and died in the 1800s. In about 1920 the skeletons - including those of parents and their two children - were exhumed.
Since Gibbon's discovery, an intense process has been under way in consultation with the Sutherland community so that restitution can take place.
The bones will eventually go home, but the community wanted to know more about them. So every day for the past two weeks Gibbon has spent two to three hours a day examining them in a laboratory, trying to work out how the individuals lived and died.
"I should be finished this week and then I will write up a summary to present to the families. It is a lot for them to deal with - it is their ancestors," she says.
A government permit will be needed before the bones can go home. "We need to prove public participation processes and prove that this is what the family wants. Restitution will likely be in the first half of next year."
The collection's other skeletons are all there legitimately, kept under lock and key in a room only Gibbon and two others can access.
The collection was started in 1913, shortly after anatomy studies began at UCT, and consists of skeletons from three primary sources.
Cadaveric skeletons are from "bodies donated to science and used in the dissection hall". Others came to the collection from the state as paupers. These are bodies that went unclaimed either because relatives could not be located or families could not afford a burial.
Any soft tissue still on the skeleton after dissection is removed, first by boiling the bones in water and laundry detergent for a few days, then by scrubbing with soft brushes.
Then skeletons are chemically cleaned and degreased in a process that takes another two weeks, before being air-dried.
Then there are archaeological remains, found during construction, erosion or an investigation. These bones are generally more than 65 years old, and analyses focus on how the communities and groups involved lived and died.
Finally, there are the forensic remains - the most rapidly growing component of the collection, thanks to changes in legislation and prevailing attitudes.
These unidentified skeletons are passed on by the police and forensic pathology services for biological profiling, and frequently remain at UCT either until they are identified or permission is given for them to be used in teaching and research.
"They come from the mortuary, where time and space are limited," says Gibbon.
In the neighbouring anatomy museum, skeletons are dressed in the layers of the human body, providing a rare glimpse into our insides, our development as a foetus, how our lungs appear if we smoke or how our head might look if our mothers had contracted the Zika virus while we were in her womb. Some are in formaldehyde, while others have been immortalised through a plastination process.
Gibbon points to a torso that shows the respiratory system.
"This is real human tissue, but all of the liquid has been replaced with plastics. This bridges art and science."
Another major field of research concerns decomposition, in which a body is at the mercy of the elements, changing in tune with nature. And it is not only minuscule creatures that are responsible.
"We have found in our terrestrial decomposition work that the mongoose is the biggest wild scavenger of remains in the Western Cape," says Gibbon.
Last year, she and colleague Devin Finaughty were called to a scene where parts of a body were missing. They saw a "tunnel in the bushes" and when they pushed back the vegetation they found clear evidence that a mongoose was responsible.
"We also recovered some personal belongings that the mongoose had moved," she says.
The department recently analysed the effect of the ocean on dead pigs' teeth in False Bay. The idea was that this could shed light on human bodies that wash up on the coast
The department also looks at marine decomposition, and recently analysed the effect of the ocean on dead pigs' teeth in False Bay. The idea was that this could shed light on human bodies, since the Salt River mortuary in Cape Town frequently receives human remains that have washed up on the coast.
In these cases, "extracting sufficient quantities of good-quality DNA has been problematic, if not impossible, due to limited research that has been performed in understanding the sea's effects on DNA degradation", says Gibbon.
"In most wash-up cases, visual and fingerprint identification is unlikely, and identification through traditional anthropological methods proves especially difficult, as remains can be extensively decomposed, skeletonised or fragmented. In many cases, the remains that are washed ashore usually have little soft tissue present."
Such research points to the countless variables in a natural environment and the effect these can have on the human body.
Out at a forensic site, Gibbon encountered a skeleton with what looked like cut marks on the bones.
"It turned out that these cut marks were done after death. Some cows being led out to pasture had been trampling on the bones. This is an example of how we have to be able to distinguish between what happened before, around the time of, and after death."
Such cases can be "very challenging", but, says Gibbon, who clearly thrives on mysteries where death has to be plotted on a timeline, "teasing all this apart really forces me to practise everything I have learnt".
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