Race, Cultural identity and human rights in South African Forensic Anthropology-University Lecture Series - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Race, Cultural identity and human rights in South African Forensic Anthropology

Wednesday, March 27, 2013     |     4:30 pm, Giant Eagle Auditorium, Baker Hall A51

Alan G. Morris, Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Fulbright Scholar, Department of Anthropology: Ohio State University September 2012 to May 2013

Forensic anthropology primarily focuses on the identity of unknown skeletonised individuals and the information from them that tells the investigator about events at death. The techniques of investigation (crime scene recovery and skeletal biology analysis) are more or less universal, but the information gleaned is not necessarily the same in different cultural, national and regional settings. The South African forensic context is distinct because of its historical focus on race and also because of the presence of cultural traditions and world views that are distinctly local.

This seminar will look at three aspects of this interplay between culture and forensic science that are specific to South Africa. The first is a look at how race, ethnicity and community are used in the identification of individuals. This includes culture specific dental extraction patterns and the presence of ritual ‘muti’ murder in the South Africa criminal scene. The second is how forensic anthropological techniques are helping us to deal with heritage issues when it comes to skeletal remains from the historic and prehistoric periods. And the third is the rise of human rights as part of forensic anthropology linked to the work of the Missing Persons Task Team and the search for the victims of apartheid.

The lesson learned is that archaeology, history and cultural anthropology are not purely academic subjects and that an understanding of all three is extremely useful in the practice of forensic science.  


Alan G. Morris is Professor in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town and is currently a visiting Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio. A Canadian by birth and upbringing, Professor Morris is also a naturalised South African. He has an undergraduate degree in Biology from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario, and a PhD in Anatomy from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Professor Morris has published extensively on the origin of anatomically modern humans, and the Later Stone Age, Iron Age and Historic populations of Kenya, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa. In more recent years he has extended his skeletal biology knowledge to the field of forensic anthropology. He has an additional interest in South African history and has published on the history of race classification, the history of physical anthropology in South Africa and on the Canadian involvement in the Anglo-Boer War. He is a council member of the Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents, an associate editor of the South African Journal of Science and an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.