Earliest Evidence of European Autopsy in the New World

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Date: October 16, 2006
Contact: Wanda Moran, 207-288-8804

A joint American-Canadian team of forensic anthropologists has completed their analysis of the skull of a young man buried during the winter of 1604-1605 at St. Croix Island in Maine and confirmed that it is the earliest evidence of a European autopsy found in the New World.

The autopsied skull was discovered during excavations at the island by the National Park Service (NPS) 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. Samuel Champlain and Pierre Dugua, a French nobleman and fur merchant, were among them. Instead of the success they expected, at least 35 of the 79 settlers died from scurvy and exposure at St. Croix Island over the harsh winter, forcing Champlain and Dugua to abandon the settlement and move their colony to Port Royal, in present-day Nova Scotia, in the summer of 1605.

The graves at the island were first excavated in 1969 by an archaeological team from Temple University, which brought back some of the bones of each man to Philadelphia for more detailed analysis. The NPS decided to respectfully re-inter these 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 these early 17th-century men before they were reburied.

Dr. Thomas Crist, associate professor at Utica College in upstate New York, is Principal Investigator for the team of forensic anthropologists analyzing the remains. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, Dr. Crist had studied the St. Croix Island bones removed by the Temple University archaeologists in 1969 for his doctoral dissertation on scurvy, together with his wife Dr. Molly Crist, now an assistant professor at Utica College. The Crists were joined in their research by Dr. Marcella Sorg, Maine State Forensic Anthropologist, and Physical Anthropologist Dr. Robert Larocque from Université Laval in Quebec.

Apart from documenting and recording the skeletal markers of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and infectious disease displayed by the men’s bones, the project team’s most exciting discovery stood out—the skull of a young man who had been autopsied by the Champlain expedition’s barber-surgeon. The surgeon cut through the skull, removing the top of the head to expose the brain. “This is the same procedure that forensic pathologists use to conduct autopsies today,” said Dr. Thomas Crist. “What makes this man unique is that he was autopsied during the winter of 1604-1605, the earliest known evidence for this practice found so far in the Americas.”

Why was this man autopsied? The answer lies in Champlain’s memoirs, which were published in 1613. In them, 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. 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’s excavations 398 years later.

The story of the tragic circumstances that led to the autopsy of the young man will be featured in an upcoming episode of the Discovery Health Channel series SKELETON STORIES, currently scheduled to be broadcast on November 10.

St. Croix Island is protected by the National Park Service as part of Saint Croix Island International Historic Site. Due to the fragile nature of the island, visits to the island itself are not encouraged. Visitors may explore the mainland site on U.S. Route 1, eight miles south of Calais, Maine, which features a short, accessible interpretive trail with bronze figures and displays that discuss the tragic events of the winter of 1604–1605. For more information about the site, visit www.nps.gov/sacr.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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