The remains of the mysterious Somerton Man will be exhumed by police in the hope that DNA samples could solve the case that has baffled detectives, researchers and amateur sleuths for more than seven decades.
- The Somerton Man’s body was found at Adelaide’s Somerton beach on December 1, 1948
- Despite repeated attempts to solve the mystery, his identity remains unknown
- Police will exhume his body in the hope that DNA samples will shed further light on who he was
The identity and cause of death of the unknown man, whose body was found on Adelaide’s Somerton beach, have remained a mystery ever since he was spotted by passers-by slumped against the seawall on December 1, 1948.
The case has sparked theories about who he was, including speculation he was a Cold War spy or a jilted lover, and that he could have been poisoned.
A police investigation and coronial inquest left the matter unresolved, with hundreds of candidates being identified and then ruled out over the years.
The case is particularly mystifying because of the number of clues linked to it, including a suitcase, items of clothing with the tags removed, incoherent writing believed to be a code, the poetry book the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a torn scrap of paper with the Persian words “Tamam Shud”, meaning “it is finished”.
The Somerton Man is buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace cemetery in a grave that refers to him simply as the “unknown man”.
After years of public discussion about digging up his remains, SA Police has now had an exhumation order approved by Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, who said the case had generated “intense public interest”.
“This man could be someone’s father, brother or cousin, and those relatives and friends deserve answers,” she said.
“South Australia Police has since come to me with the funding and an application, and I have approved it.
Detective Superintendent Des Bray, from SA Police’s Major Crime division, said that improvements in technology would give forensic experts the best chance yet “to possibly identify the man through his DNA”.
“I won’t speculate on how this man died, but there may also be potential to establish a definitive cause of death,” he said.
SA Police will work with Forensic Science SA scientific staff and the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority to carry out the exhumation and reinterment of the man’s body.
DNA analysis ‘extremely challenging’
While a date for the exhumation has not yet been determined, Forensic Science SA director Linzi Wilson-Wilde said it would likely be in the “short term”, and that the remains would be transferred to a laboratory for analysis.
“It’s going to be extremely challenging in a technical sense — the remains have been buried for over 70 years and, in addition, the body was embalmed which adds further complications,” Dr Wilson-Wilde said.
“The chemicals used in the embalming process can significantly break down any DNA present. It really is an unknown — we don’t know what the state of the remains is going to be, we don’t know the level of degradation.”
Dr Wilson-Wilde hoped there would be enough DNA to allow researchers to compare the Somerton Man’s profile with potential relatives.
“Ideally, we’d like to identify a source of good quality DNA and then generate a DNA profile from it. That profile we could compare to potential descendants,” she said.
“Each person’s DNA contains the genetic code that makes them who they are — that code can be compared to another person’s DNA code and it’s that comparison that we can do in order to identify a person.
Somerton Man researcher Professor Derek Abbott, who has spent years investigating the case and has long campaigned for an exhumation, said he was excited by the development.
“I knew it would happen one day,” he said.
“There’s so many weird twists and turns in this case — so many unlikely things keep happening.”
Professor Abbott, who believes his wife Rachel could be a descendant of the Somerton Man, recently commissioned Canadian virtual reality artist Daniel Voshart to come up with new artistic renditions of what the Somerton Man may have looked like when he was alive.
He said while exhumation would potentially help solve the mystery, he accepted that there were no guarantees.
“We’re not talking about the type of DNA that’s used to catch criminals. This is the type of DNA that’s used to identify somebody’s genealogy,” he said.
“To make it clear, normal criminal DNA tests use something like 23 markers, whereas this one — we’re using about 800,000 DNA markers.
“Through his DNA, should we find it through the exhumation, we can potentially find on genealogical databases his cousins and relatives and bring him back to his family.”
The Attorney-General previously told the ABC the State Government had offered its conditional support for an exhumation, provided it was privately funded.
“We would need to have a clear plan as to what the exhumation arrangements would be, what particles of fibre or tissue might be required for forensic assessment, who would undertake that, the security of that, the reinterment,” Ms Chapman said in 2018.
The decision to exhume the Somerton Man is part of SA Police’s Operation Persevere into historic cold cases.
Dr Wilson-Wilde said the exhumation would be conducted in a way that ensured the remains were treated with sensitivity and the “greatest respect”.
“We are limiting individuals attending the exhumation process to the minimum number possible — we’ll have an anthropologist there … she’ll be able to identify the bones and make sure we get those bones in a good condition back to the laboratory.”