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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, South Africa. Like many corpses there, this one had no identity.

“Oh, he has tattoos,” she said, peering closely at the crudely sketched letters on the young man’s left leg. “Fantastic!”

Tattoos, DNA and scars are vital clues that Mahon, 28, and her mainly female team of forensic scientists collect in a bid to identify the thousands of people who are buried anonymously in South Africa each year. Most of them are believed to be migrants who’ve come to Africa’s most industrialized nation in search of work, in particular to Johannesburg, its economic hub.

The huge number of unidentified bodies passing through South Africa’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 to zero.

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