Science Interviews


Sun, 17th Jun 2007

The Torso in the Thames: Using Plant Remains to Identify a Body

Dr Hazel Wilkinson, Jodrell Laboratory, Kew Gardens

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Sabina - In 2001 the torso of a boy aged about 5 was found in the Thames near Tower Bridge, in London. Police believe this was a ritual killing and much forensic work took place to try and identify the boy and lead the Police to his killers. This forensic evidence included taking mineral samples from his bones which matched those in a rural area in south-western Nigeria. Police traveled there to try and obtain further clues as they think the boy, who they've named “Adam”, had only been in London for a short time before he was killed.

The contents of Adam's intestine included large amounts of plant matter and so they were sent to Dr Hazel Wilkinson of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew Gardens for identification.

Hazel - In may 2003, material recovered from the lower intestine of the little boy known as Adam, was sent by the police forensic department.  Among the plant remains there were also quartz grains, small particles of gold small fragments of ground down bone. In addition, the police picked up the largest pieces, naturally, of plant material that they could find, and these are very characteristic of tropical bean seeds.

Sabina - The beans which Adam had been fed as part of the ritual had been ground up in a pestle and mortar so the fragments in his gut were extremely small. In order for Hazel to be able to identify the beans under a microscope, she needed some whole beans to compare the sample with.

Hazel - I got some calabar beans from our economic botany department, and I had to ask the herbarium for seeds of other beans; schwarzia, cassia. But when it came to the leaf material, unless I’ve got stomata, hair and glands on the speciment it’s extremely difficult to do anything at all.

Sabina - Those are the bits from the underside of the leaf?

Hazel - Yes, the lower surface of the leaf. I was very fortunate that we had a visitor here from Ibadar in Nigeria, where Adam is believed to have come from and he brought with him some leaf material from one of the Ibadan markets. One of the leaves he gave me fitted exactly, which was so helpful, one of the leaves I found in Adam material. But it is really a very considerable battle to identify anything at all.

Despite the difficulty in identifying the stomach contents, Hazel was able to detect the presence of significant plants.

Hazel - I feel convinced that a small amount of calabar bean was probably in the meal that Adam had, but one of the most frequently found fragments are those of Datura – “Angels Trumpets”. It’s a member of the solanaceae, the potato and tomato family. Now I have bought, and also obtained from the herbarium, some seeds of datura, ground them up in a pestle and mortar and tried to compare them with the datura in Adams gut. I feel convinced that there is quite a lot of it. Datura is well known historically for being of a sedative, hallucinatory nature, and it’s still used for bad purposes today.

Sabina - Hazel needed some clues to help her narrow the search when it came to identifying the rest of the contents. She obtained a book of spells traditionally used in south-western Nigeria to give her an idea of what other plants might be present.

Hazel - “The Use of Plants in Yoruba Society” loads and loads of wonderful receipes supposed to do all sorts of things…

Sabina - “To appease one’s spirit counterpart”… “To send smallpox to someone”…

Hazel - Yes, most peculiar. “To kill somebody” – of course I’ve got a marker in that because I needed to look through these plants to see if there is anything in here.

Sabina - Hazel's findings helped the Police concentrate the investigation into specific channels which assisted in uncovering human trafficking ring between Nigeria and the UK. The Police have as yet, not been able to identify the perpetrators of this crime, but their investigations have further revealed underground sacrificial practices in London.

Hazel - It would seem that Adams sacrifice was to give somebody power and money. Now where is his head, we don’t know, but we do know that the head was considered to give the owner of it, especially in a child, youthfulness, extra brain power and above all access to more and more money.


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