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Somerton Man exhumed in bid to end decades-old mystery

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The exhumation by SA Police of the unknown “Somerton Man” at West Terrace Cemetery today is a bid to solve a mystery that has baffled authorities for 73 years – but experts warn there is no certainty it will lead to his identification.

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The man’s body was found on Somerton Beach on December 1, 1948. No cause of death was found and he has never been identified, but a scrap of a Persian phrase “tamám shud” – translating to “ended” or “finished” – was found in his pocket.

Months after his burial at West Terrace Cemetery, police found the book from which the phrase was cut.

The book had a code written on its back page which is yet to be cracked – fuelling speculation the man was a Cold War spy.

Major Crime Detective Superintendent Des Bray today emphasised the exhumation was done not just out of academic interest, but acknowledged it was an abnormal case for police given there is “a lot more mystery and public interest”.

“It’s important to remember that the Somerton Man is not just a curiosity or a mystery to be solved,” he told reporters outside the cemetery.

“It’s somebody’s father, son, perhaps grandfather or uncle, brother, and that’s why we’re doing this and trying to identify him.”

The exhumation is one part of SA Police’s “Operation Preserve”, which is tasked with identifying 19 sets of unidentified human remains in South Australia.

Bray said police know people in Adelaide who believe they may be relatives of the Somerton Man, and they “deserve to have a definitive answer” on this question.

“We would hope from this exercise to gather information which will be able to aid the investigators and point them in the direction of inquiries that might help to identify him, his origins and maybe how he died,” he said.

Once the conditions of the remains are known, SA Police will work with the Forensic Science SA to determine the best forensic strategy to analyse what is left of the Somerton Man’s DNA.

Bray said it’s possible the man will remain unidentified.

“The challenge for us is, because it’s such a long time ago, to obtain DNA,” Bray said.

“We need to be realistic – it is a possibility we might not [identify him].

“Even if we do obtain a sample, whether we get a result will be determined by the amount of DNA and the quality of DNA.”

Forensic Science SA Assistant Director of Operations Anne Coxon was also cautious about the potential for the exhumation to provide answers.

“With older remains, you need to look at the condition of the remains and whether there is DNA present,” she said.

She said it was “difficult to predict” how long the DNA analysis would take until scientists have seen the condition of the remains.

“Over the years there’s been huge advances in DNA technology and now there are a lot of different techniques that we’d want to be able to potentially use to assess and try to find this gentleman’s name,” Coxon said.

“We may or may not be successful in that.”

Coxon also said the chemical fluid used to embalm the Somerton Man is another “complication” as it can breakdown DNA.

“Even if do actually find DNA present, we may not actually find a match,” she said.

“It will depend on who’s on the databases we’re looking at and what information we can extract from the comparison that’s made.”

The forensics centre will be consulting with DNA experts across Australia because this type of analysis is “not something that we would do on a routine basis or have the expertise for”, according to Coxon.

“We haven’t had a case … where we are considering as many different types of DNA testing that are available,” she said.

“We will then need to determine what’s the best way to extract any DNA, and once we’ve done that make sure that the condition of the DNA … is going to be sufficient for the techniques we would like to consider.”

Flinders University Chair in Forensic DNA Technology Professor Adrian Linacre said a “highly compromised” DNA sample would rule out the use of DNA analysis techniques deployed in the criminal justice system, as the regions of DNA being examined would fail to give a result.

“An alternative is to use hypervariable regions of DNA on the Y-chromosome,” Linacre said.

“This will match anyone who is related down the paternal line, i.e. have a common male ancestor.

“[But] these hypervariable regions can also generate no result if the DNA is highly compromised.”

Linacre said mitochondrial DNA, which can link anyone who shares a female relative, could also be used if the Y-chromosome analysis fails to produce a result.

“Mitochondrial DNA has been used in historic cases, first highlighted by the identification of the Romanov family killed in 1918,” he said.

“Single base changes can be looked at also in highly compromised material. This can look at the ancestry and some physical features (eye colour, hair colour).”

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, who signed off on the Somerton Man’s exhumation last month, thanked SA Police for their “commitment and financial contribution to meet the costs of this significant project”.

“[This case] is important to the public – it’s been of academic interest, it’s been studied, it’s been investigated, and we hope with this opportunity there will be some resolution,”

“If there are family out there that can be found, of course, that will be further bonus.”

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