September 21, 2020

The enigma of the skeleton covered with barnacles that appeared on a sunken ship in 1686 | Science


About 400 people went to the funeral of a man on Tuesday that no one knew his name. It was February 3, 2004, in the quiet Texas State Cemetery, in Austin (United States). He was an unidentified dead man, but at some point everyone started calling him Bob. His DNA now begins to reveal who he really was.

When he was alive, that stranger boarded a ship on the other side of the Atlantic, in the French port of La Rochelle, on July 24, 1684. A fleet of four ships, with 300 men and few women on board, sailed that day off the coast of France with a mission entrusted by King Louis XIV: establish a French colony in the Gulf of Mexico and spy on the Spanish silver mines to prepare a future invasion. Robert Cavelier, a 43-year-old French explorer, was in charge of the expedition. Almost no one would return home alive.

The expedition intended to establish a French colony in the Gulf of Mexico and spy on the Spanish silver mines

The first ship, the Saint-François, was approached by privateers and never touched land in America. The second ship, the Aimable, ran aground and was destroyed near the coast of Texas. The third ship, the Joly, with the decimated crew, he undertook the return to France, leaving Cavelier with a single ship and a handful of men camped in the Texan bay of Matagorda. At the beginning of 1686, a storm sank the last ship in the fleet sent by the Sun King: the La belle. On board was Bob. No one saw him again until three centuries later.

In the summer of 1995, divers from the Texas Historical Commission dived into the shallow waters of Matagorda Bay to track a track. His magnetometer had detected an anomaly, perhaps caused by metallic objects at the bottom of the ocean. After several dives, the divers found a bronze cannon peeking out of the sandy ground. Down there, incredibly well preserved, was the ship La belle. It was a time capsule of the 17th century.

Excavation of 'La Belle' inside a steel wall inside the ocean, in 1996.


Excavation of ‘La Belle’ inside a steel wall inside the ocean, in 1996.

Archaeologists erected a steel wall around the wrecked ship and pumped the seawater out. For months, they worked by digging the ship dry, inside an unusual structure stuck in the middle of the ocean. In the guts of the ship they found the necessary ingredients to found a colony: three guns with hundreds of balls, a rotating gun mounted on the deck, 30 muskets, nine incendiary bombs, dozens of iron axes, swords, crucifixes, Jesuit rings, wine barrels, brandy bottles, thousands of glass beads to trade and thus up to almost two million artifacts. And, on the bow of the ship, on the anchor rope, the complete skeleton of the unknown man, with the bones covered with barnacles. Inside the skull there was still his brain.

“We know a few names of the people who were on the ship at the time of the shipwreck. And we know what happened to them, ”he explains Brad Jones, the chief archaeologist of the Texas Historical Commission, a state agency dedicated to heritage conservation. The skeleton found is an enigma. Beside him, Jones remembers, a bowl appeared, with a name engraved: C. Barange. It is a surname present in France and in Spain. In the province of Barcelona there are 186 people named Barangé, according to the National Statistics Institute.

Bowl with the name C. Barange, at the Bullock Museum of Texas State History.


Bowl with the name C. Barange, at the Bullock Museum of Texas State History.

“However, this name does not appear in any of the written records [de la expedición] we’ve discovered so far, so we don’t know if it was his name or, simply, the bowl was from someone else’s. In other words: we don’t know who he was, only who he wasn’t, ”admits the archaeologist. A replica of the skull of this unknown man, made before his funeral in 2004, is exhibited today at the Bullock Museum of Texas State History, in Austin, next to the authentic remains of the La belle.

To try to solve the puzzle, Jones’ team has turned to forensics: those of the group of Angie Ambers, an expert from the University of New Haven who has already identified human remains from the American civil war and World War II. His laboratory has now analyzed DNA samples from the skeleton of the La belle, but also of a fibula found among the ship’s cargo. And there are surprises.

The first results, published in the specialized magazine Forensic Science International, suggest that there was a stowaway on the ship. The DNA of the fibula shows a characteristic pattern of Native American peoples. And the genetic material also indicates that the bone belonged to a man who most likely had brown eyes and black hair. “How did an adult American Indian end up in a sunken French ship?” Scientists ask.

The skeleton found next to the anchor rope of 'La Belle'.


The skeleton found next to the anchor rope of ‘La Belle’.

The fibula of a stowaway and the DNA of the skeleton

When he La belle He went down, Captain Robert Cavelier was on the ground. Some of his men mutinied months later and killed him with a shot at close range on March 19, 1687. One of the survivors of the expedition, soldier Henri Joutel, ended up returning to France. His diary he tells that the crew had an indigenous man, named Nika, but this man cannot be the owner of the fibula, because he was murdered along with Cavelier. “Most likely, the remains are from a local Karankawa Indian who was searching the wrecked ship, got caught and died,” the scientists said in their study.

Bob’s Y chromosome is very common on the Atlantic coast of France, but also common in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Wales, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands

The Native American Tomb Protection and Repatriation Act obstructs the conduct of further analysis of the fibula, so researchers have focused on the mysterious complete skeleton. His DNA shows that he was a European man. “Informally, we started calling him Barange, for the bowl that was next to him, but we’re not sure it was his,” archaeologist Brad Jones explains. “In Palacios, the port town where our laboratory was, everyone called Bob,” he says.

Bob’s genetic analysis reveals that his type of Y chromosome is present in 80% of the population of the Atlantic coast of France, but is also common in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Wales, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, according to the authors. “Now that we have a good DNA sample, we can explore other ways to find their descendants,” says Jones. The Barangé surname is “one of the main clues”, so researchers do not rule out comparing Bob’s DNA with some of these possible descendants of France and Spain.

“This study shows the sensitivity of current forensic methods to recover DNA from human remains in archaeological sites,” the authors applaud. When the skeleton appeared in the La belle, in 1995, the classic study of the bones allowed to calculate that this man was about 40 years old and measured about 160 centimeters. The analysis of your DNA now opens the possibility of putting a name on your tombstone.

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