It’s been some time since I’ve written for SAFE, but an article discovered while searching the bioarchaeological literature for my own research struck me as so incredible, I felt I just had to share it here. This link will lead you to a recent Journal of Forensic Sciences article by Seidemann, Stojanowski and Rich, detailing how they put cutting edge bioarchaeological and forensic human identification techniques to use in an almost unbelievable case…the identification of a human skull almost sold on eBay!! Yes, you read that right! As the article explains, the investigation and research began when the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was informed by the National Park Service that someone was attempting to sell a probable Native American skull on eBay, from an undisclosed address in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The seller’s photos made it clear that the skull had been unearthed at some point in the past, as soil was still adhering to or filling most major orifices. In this case, the seller was fortunately cooperative, both voluntarily turning over several artifacts believed to be associated with the skull, and claiming what was deemed to be “real ignorance” of prohibitions against selling human remains; thus direct charges were dropped.
The seller suggested that the skull might have come from within the grounds of the “Pohler Estate,” formerly owned by Roy Pohler, a “well known antiquities collector in the early to middle 20th century.” Items from his collection are still in circulation, for example Item DIOT5 here. His globe-spanning collection was mostly collected before relevant national and international conventions were put into place, and was almost entirely without specific provenance. Therefore, investigators rightfully concluded that there was no guarantee that the skull derived from within the boarders of the current state of Louisiana, and thus bioarchaeological, soil, palynological (pollen) and mineralogical analyses were deemed necessary to identify the likely ancestral affinity of the skull and pin-point its geographic origin with as much certainty as possible.
Work of this nature would be crucial to make certain that the remains were indeed Native American, and to determine which contemporary tribe (or the descendants of a tribe forcibly relocated in recent history) the skull should be repatriated to under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). As the “Louisiana Unmarked Human Burial Sites Preservation Act” goes even further than NAGPRA in attaching severe civil and criminal penalties for the disturbance, trade or sale of human remains, regardless of ancestry, determining if the individual represented by the skull could have derived from a site or population currently within the borders of Louisiana took on even more significance.
Without going into too much detail, I can summarize the bioarchaeological analysis discussed in the article thusly: a general success! I emphasize the word general because, although the skull is one of the most telling regions of the human skeleton when it comes to determining age, sex, and population affinity, without as much of the rest of the skeleton as possible, conclusions can only be general. Unfortunately, no infracranial bones (bones below the skull) were recovered in association. General age and sex was easy enough to determine due to the skull’s good condition, but the article stresses that the sparse and wide-spread nature of large collections of North American Native American remains that have been thoroughly analysed and published, in terms of the most common measurements of the skull, face, and teeth that can be used to place a skeleton of unknown ancestry into its statistically most probable population(s), are few and far between.
In this era of more carefully controlled collaborative excavations of Native American prehistoric sites (a good thing!) and, on the other hand, occasionally “premature” repatriation of skeletal collections before all possible information is obtained (a bad thing, in my opinion), the amount of published data useful to forensic anthropologists and antiquities trade investigators in cases like this is unlikely to skyrocket. Further confounding the assigning of this skull to a particular historic or contemporary population, the article notes, was the unknown radiocarbon (C14) age of the remains and the presence of deliberate cranial deformation, a practice common to many Native groups throughout the Americas, but one which limits the number of useful measurements. Nevertheless, the skull was identified as Native American (likely pre-contact).
What really intrigued me, however, was how the soil and pollen analyses came into play. First of all, soil sampled from the skull reacted “violently” when mixed with water and hydrofluoric acid, “typical of soils from the Atlantic Coastal Plain that contain a great deal of fine-grained mineral matter, including the clay mineral caolinite.” Although no pollen was recovered, many charcoal fragments and fungal spores from several general Southeast US species were. Together with a very high presence of quartz (characteristic of loess soil), the small size of the charcoal particles, and the important lack of flowering plant pollen suggest that the individual “was interred in sediments that had accumulated in a xeric, fire-prone terrestrial environment that supported little in the way of higher plant life.” Such a combination of factors, on the North American continent, pointed to the Middle Mississippi Valley.
The authors conclude that although scientific attempts at “fleshing out” this individuals’ history, given only a skull, produced only general results, the science brought to bare was at the very least able to secure repatriation within Louisiana and, as important, the prompt action taken and the cooperation of the seller took one more “set” of human remains off the market. As the authors note, and as I’ve blogged about before here and on my own blog, the sale of human remains and/or directly associated artifacts on eBay continues despite eBay’s own “Prohibited and Restricted Items Policy on Human Remains,” which specifically targets Native American remains and associated grave goods. A 2004 article the authors cite adds to this concern by noting the ease with which unscrupulous eBay dealers can label prehistoric remains as modern medical specimens, the high prices remains can fetch, and the deliberately targeted looting this encourages. Lest we in the antiquities trade monitoring community think that only artifacts ‘surface’ here, the articles discussed above dismantle that illusion. Hopefully after the rather public expore of these loopholes by the cases discussed above, even more due diligance will continue and an actual ban on the sale of all human remains will be enforced. Thankfully in the Louisiana case above, concerned citizens and scientists intervened in time.
(Image courtesy of dl.keg.org).