Vanikoro’s mysterious skeleton (1)

It is now twenty years since teams discovered a skeleton in its entirety off the coast of Papua New Guinea. A series of articles published over the coming months will enable you to (re)discover the story of this unknown creature.

On 1 August 1785, La Boussole and l’Astrolabe, two frigates commanded respectively by Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse and Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle, left Brest harbour for a circumnavigation voyage without return. On board: 110 men each, including the most renowned scientists. The last news to reach Versailles was on 26 January 1788. The expedition was then in Botany Bay, now Sidney. It was learned much later, during the Restoration, that the two ships had run aground in Vanikoro, in the middle of the South Pacific.

An almost complete skeleton. On the right, Alain Conan – (Collection-lapé

The Salomon association, led by Alain Conan, with the help of the French Navy, has set itself an ambitious goal: to trace the crew members (sailors and scientists).

In 2003, a complete skeleton was discovered during excavations on La Boussole. The man had probably been pinned to the floor in his cabin by an architectural structure at the time of the shipwreck; the coral had then enveloped him and protected him from various predators. The two-metre layer of coral had to be attacked with an ice axe to free the body!

Since then, scientists and genealogists have been trying to identify it.

At a ceremony in Nouméa in December 2003, the French Navy paid “military honours to one of its men, who died in Vanikoro over two hundred years ago, and who symbolises all the sailors who have disappeared”.

Investigations conducted on the skeleton

The skull (@Collection-lapé

The bones examined by the Institut de Recherche Criminelle de la Gendarmerie Nationale (IRCGN) in Rosny-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis) are gradually revealing their secrets:

  • he is a Caucasian male aged between 30 and 35 years, with an uncertainty of 5 to 6 years. He is approximately 1.68 metres tall, with an uncertainty of 4 centimetres.
  • his well-maintained teeth, unusual for the time, reveal perfect dental hygiene. This rules out the possibility that he was a sailor. The teeth are abraded, as if by chewing, and he is slightly prognathic.
  • the right fibula showed a clear diaphyseal, transverse fracture, although it was not possible to determine whether or not this fracture was post-mortem. The lower limbs were unequal by two centimetres, with no congenital dislocation of the hip, and the patient was able to walk normally.
  • he suffered a fracture of the left humerus and right clavicle in childhood or adolescence.
  • he must be left-handed.
  • their musculature is only slightly to moderately developed, which would seem to exclude sailors who have spent many years manoeuvring.
  • it was also discovered in the after forecastle of La Boussole, where the officers and scientists lived.

Objects found near body

The discovery of the skeleton was accompanied by several identified objects:

  • five brass suit buttons, one engraved with a crown and the initials RV, four others in brass with no distinguishing marks, three silver shoe buckles.
  • a pistol with the initials GJC or GH, other objects with the initials RV, a cannula.
  • objects that probably belonged to Abbé Mongez, mineralogist and chaplain to the expedition: a wooden box containing a missal, a crucifix, a large number of pieces of crockery bearing the ecclesiastical coat of arms (hat, cordon with twelve tassels, six on each side, in three rows, and on the shield a heart pierced by an arrow, indicating membership of the Génovéfains*, the religious order to which Jean André Mongez belonged), an altar stone, a small box containing holy oils bearing the arms of the King of France.
  • astronomical instruments that probably belonged to Joseph Lepaute Dagelet: an astronomical telescope, a quarter-circle and other observation instruments.

*Canons of the Regular Order of Sainte-Geneviève

Two robot portraits made from the skeleton’s skull

One is by Dr Jean-Noël Vignal, a forensic anthropologist at the National Gendarmerie Criminal Research Institute (IRCGN) who has developed a method of computer-assisted facial reconstruction. The other is by sculptor Elisabeth Daynes, based on the work of the first.

One question remains. Will he remain the “unknown man of Vanikoro”?

To be continued ….

Anne Marie Guillot, Professor at the University of Bordeaux

Member of the ALAF, Board of Directors

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