Correction to This Article
A Nov. 6 Science article on the discovery of the first physical evidence of an autopsy by European explorers in the New World incorrectly described Vitamin C as the only vitamin the human body cannot produce on its own. Humans obtain all vitamins directly or indirectly from food.

New World Explorers Sought to Explain Death

Early Autopsy
Courtesy of Utica University (Courtesy of Utica University)
By David Chanatry
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 6, 2006

In June 1604, fur traders led by Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua found a site they thought would be ideal for the first settlement in New France. The tiny island in the middle of the St. Croix River, now part of Maine's Acadia National Park, had high bluffs and a clear view downriver to watch for their English rivals.

But winter that year came early and hard, and St. Croix Island proved to be a prison. The men were stuck, trapped by dangerous ice floes moving on the tremendous tides from the nearby Bay of Fundy. By February, they began to die of scurvy; in all, 35 of 79 colonists perished.

The disease was known, but not its cause. In his desperation to find out what was happening to his men, Champlain took the unusual step of ordering autopsies.

"We could find no remedies to cure these maladies," Champlain wrote in his memoirs in 1613. "We opened several of them to determine the cause of their illness."

Now forensic anthropologists studying the St. Croix burial ground have found a cranium with the skullcap cleanly sawed off, along with shallow cut marks they say would have been made by the expedition's barber-surgeon while removing the scalp. Although there are written records of earlier autopsies by European settlers in the New World, the St. Croix find is the earliest skeletal evidence of one.

"It's the holy grail for a forensic physical anthropologist or historical archaeologist to find this kind of evidence" said Thomas Crist of Utica College, the lead anthropologist on the team that re-excavated the site in 2003. "It just doesn't happen every day."

The team used modern forensic techniques to confirm it was scurvy that doomed the men. Using an advanced form of CT scan called multidetector computed tomography, they studied bones of six of the settlers. The scans revealed evidence of skeletal lesions and bleeding into the joints and bones, telltale signs of the disease.

And in what potentially could be the most intriguing find of all, distinctive features in the skull and teeth of one skeleton indicate a non-European origin, possibly an African. If confirmed by DNA analysis, said Crist, these would be the earliest recovered remains of an African in North America.

Even with the written record of the autopsies provided by Champlain himself, the team was not expecting to find any physical evidence, said Steven R. Pendery of the National Park Service, the principal investigator.

Twenty-three grave sites had already been excavated in 1969 as part of a field school in archaeology on the island. If autopsied remains had been there, Pendery said, he and his colleagues thought they would have been discovered in the earlier dig, when the bones thought to yield the most information were removed for examination at Temple University in Philadelphia. The goal of the 2003 project was not further excavation but to rebury those remains.

"Our practices now are to preserve and protect sites in place," Pendery said. The Park Service "felt it's in the best interest of the resource to return [the bones] to the original location and maintain them as a protected archaeological site, as opposed to maintaining them in boxes."

Using maps, diagrams and photographs from the 1969 work, the team essentially re-excavated the site so they could put the right parts back with the right remains. They reconstructed the original dig and squared off the field in the same way, said Molly H. Crist, who is Thomas Crist's wife and also teaches at Utica College. "We would stand there at the trenches and would hold the photographs up and say 'Ah, there it is.' It was really kind of neat from that standpoint."

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