April 09, 2020
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St. Croix skull yields signs of early autopsy

CALAIS – It long has been believed that one of the earliest autopsies in America happened on St. Croix Island more than 400 years ago.

Now it has been confirmed.

A joint American-Canadian team of forensic anthropologists has completed its analysis of the skull of a young man buried during the winter of 1604-05 on the island in the St. Croix River. The team confirmed that it is the earliest evidence of a European autopsy found in the New World, the National Park Service said in a prepared release.

The story of the circumstances that led to the autopsy of the young man will be featured in an episode of the Discovery Health Channel series “Skeleton Stories,” scheduled for broadcast on Nov. 10.

The National Park Service discovered the autopsied skull during excavations at the island in easternmost Maine in June 2003.

“Led by Dr. Steven Pendery from the NPS Northeast Region Archeology Program, the project re-excavated the remains of men who had sailed to the New World in 1604 to establish a settlement for the King of France,” the release stated. “[Historian and cartographer] Samuel Champlain and Pierre Dugua [Sieur de Monts], a French nobleman and fur merchant, were among them.”

St. Croix Island is located about 10 miles south of downtown Calais.

The expedition explored parts of Nova Scotia, then sailed to Passamaquoddy Bay. De Monts decided to settle on the island. It is believed he chose the site because it shared the same latitude as temperate France, so it was assumed that the climate would be similar.

Little did the settlers know.

The adventurers fortified themselves against possible attacks from Indians as well as from other Europeans, but it was a savage winter that proved their undoing.

Champlain included in his diaries a drawing of the settlement and burial site.

Gardens were planted, and the group made preparations for winter.

The first snow fell on Oct. 6, and “on the third of December we saw ice passing which came from some frozen river.” Champlain wrote. “The cold was severe and more extreme than in France and lasted much longer, and it hardly rained at all that winter.”

Disease broke out, and the men took to their beds, wasted by scurvy, a nutrient deficiency that weakens body tissues and causes anemia. As winter progressed, 35 of the 79 men died and 20 more were near death. Champlain described the devastation.

“Their teeth barely held in their places, and could be drawn out with the fingers without causing pain. This superfluous flesh was often cut away, which caused them to lose much blood from the mouth,” he wrote in his diary. “Afterwards, they were taken with great pains in the arms and legs, which became swollen and very hard and covered with spots like flea-bites; and they could not walk on account of the contraction of the nerves; consequently they had almost no strength, and suffered intolerable pains.”

Apart from documenting and recording the skeletal markers of the vitamin C deficiency, scurvy, and infectious disease displayed by the men’s bones, the American-Canadian team of anthropologists’ most exciting discovery was the skull of a young man who had been autopsied by the island’s barber-surgeon.

“The surgeon cut through the skull, removing the top of the head to expose the brain,” the press release said. This is the same autopsy procedure used today.

Why was the man autopsied?

The answer lies in Champlain’s diaries, which were published in 1613.

“Champlain wrote that he had ordered his surgeon to ‘open several of the men to determine the cause of their illness.’ Which modern skeletal analysis confirms was scurvy,” the press release said. “As a sign of respect for his fallen comrade, the surgeon replaced the autopsied skull cap back in its correct location before the young man was buried, exactly where it was found during the NPS excavations 398 years later.”

De Monts abandoned the settlement and moved the colony to Port Royal in present-day Nova Scotia in the summer of 1605.

The graves on the island first were opened in 1969 by an archaeological team from Temple University. They took some of the bones with them to Philadelphia for analysis.

A few years ago, the park service decided to reinter the remains in consultation with the French and Canadian governments.

“Recognizing the historical significance of the settlement and the men who died there, the NPS arranged for a team of physical anthropologists to use 21st century forensic science techniques to analyze the remains of the Frenchmen that died,” the press release stated.

Dr. Thomas Crist, associate professor at Utica College in upstate New York, was the principal investigator for the team of forensic anthropologists analyzing the remains. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, Crist had studied the St. Croix Island bones removed by the Temple University archaeologists.


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