Vanikoro’s mysterious skeleton (2)

We mentioned earlier the surprising discovery of a skeleton admirably preserved more than 200 years after the sinking of La Boussole in the Vanikoro fault. The objects found in the vicinity are all clues to its identification, especially as the prerequisites limit the potential candidates to the scientists on board La Boussole, effectively excluding those on board l’Astrolabe.

Skeletal characteristics far removed from those of a sailor

The skeleton is that of a man aged between 30 and 35 at the time of the shipwreck in 1788 (with an uncertainty of 5 to 6 years) measuring 1.68 metres, with an uncertainty of 4 centimetres. He has good teeth, which excludes sailors, and suffered a fracture of the left humerus and right clavicle in childhood or adolescence. He also had a fracture of the fibula before or after death. Finally, there is a slight prognathism1.

1 – Overshot: the lower jaw is forward in relation to the upper jaw

Drawing by Duché de Vancy, November 1785, stopover of the expedition on Sainte Catherine Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Brazil. The figure in a frock next to a nun could be Mongez.

Clues found near the skeleton (see previous article here)

Two groups of objects were found near the skeleton: on the one hand, religious objects likely to be linked to Abbé Mongez, chaplain and mineralogist (crucifix, crockery bearing the ecclesiastical arms of the Order of St Geneviève, to which the Abbé belonged, etc.) and on the other, scientific objects (astronomical telescope, quarter circle) most likely belonging to Lepaute Dagelet, astrologer. ) and scientific objects (astronomical telescope, quarter circle) most likely belonging to Lepaute Dagelet, an astrologer. For the Salomon Association, these objects did indeed belong to Vanikoro’s stranger: “Previously, the Association thought that La Boussole had exploded on impact, mixing up the objects. It is now leaning more towards the version of an ordered wreck: the ship having been embedded by the stern, the bow having spilled onto the reef drop, but the walls of the fault that we have now reached are the embedded sides of the frigate.”

Scientists excluded from the analysis

1- Louis Monge, born in 1748, a mathematician and Gaspard’s brother, was left out because he was no longer a member of the expedition at the time of the shipwreck. Barely thirty days after leaving Brest, he disembarked in Madeira suffering from severe seasickness.

2- Gaspard Duché de Vancy, the expedition’s draughtsman, attracted attention for a while: he was 32 years old, not a sailor, and some people argued that the slight abrasion on the skeleton’s teeth could have been caused by chewing on a pencil. But in 2003, a letter dated 27 September 1787 from Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe, addressed to Louis Monge, went on sale. Lapérouse gave me a present of M. Duché, who is a detestable subject; fortunately he is too sullen to alter the good relations that prevail on board the Astrolabe, where he does not come with pleasure…”.

If Duché de Vancy is no longer on the Compass, it is no longer a possible candidate. Sold at auction at Drouot on 6 February 2003, the letter was bought by the town of Albi for €4,295.34. “Sometimes all it takes is a few words on an old letter to bring down the work of scientists. That’s what research is all about”, Mathieu Desachy, curator of the media library, enthused to La Dépêche newspaper.

3– Joseph Le Corre, born in 1759, embarked as second surgeon and was appointed surgeon major when Claude Nicolas Rollin landed in Macao. He was 29 in 1788, which seems too young.

Two scientists remain in the running

Lepaute Dagelet, miniature portrait on snuffbox, 1772, exhibited at the Château de Malmaison in 1927

1Joseph Lepaute Dagelet was born on 25 November 1751, and was 37 at the time of the shipwreck, very close to the estimated age of the skeleton. The nephew of the king’s watchmakers, he was professor of mathematics at the Ecole Militaire in 1777. His observation of the planets and stars was remarkable, as was his calculation of a large number of eclipses of the Sun and his work on the theory of Venus. Lapérouse took him on board La Boussole as an astronomer, despite his delicate health. The navigation objects near the skeleton probably belonged to him.

2Jean-André Mongez, born in Lyon on 21 November 1750, was 38 at the time of the shipwreck. Canon of Ste Geneviève (now the Pantheon), he came from a family of Lyon scholars. He was the nephew of the famous Abbé Rozier, author of the Cours Complet d’Agriculture. He was director of the Journal de Physique, in which the great scientists of the time wrote. He was a physicist, but it was as a mineralogist that he was taken on board by Lapérouse. He is described as an athletic man, not hesitating to climb hills and volcanoes at every port of call. Numerous religious objects belonging to him surround the skeleton. The Lyon library holds the full-length and profile portraits of Mongez, reproduced below.

In the frontal portrait, there is a slight prognathism, which is emphasised here in this enlargement. The face is broad.

In the profile, there is an anomaly: the artist seems to have corrected a prognathism that was no doubt considered unsightly, by swinging the lower jaw backwards. In doing so, the jaw is exaggeratedly narrowed, making it impossible for the teeth to fit! And Mongez’s face was no longer as wide as his frontal portrait.

Sculpture of the unknown by Elizabeth Daynes based on work by the IRCGN (Institut de Recherche Criminelle de la Gendarmerie Nationale)

The face of the skeleton reconstructed by Elizabeth Daynes, who at the time did not have access to the portraits in the Lyon library, also illustrates the prognathism observed.

There is another disturbing detail: In his Journal de Physique, Mongez published a study on a device designed to reduce fractures in Albert Pieropan’s legs, proving that he was concerned by the subject. Could he have fractured his fibula in his lifetime, like the stranger in the rift?

The clues found in the rift have thus made it possible, with the usual reservations, to reduce to a handful the number of individuals likely to be hiding behind Vanikoro’s stranger.

At this stage, we can be lost in all sorts of conjectures. Only a comparison of the mitochondrial DNA2 on the skeleton with that of members of his family can give us his identity with any certainty.

2 – Mitochondrial DNA: DNA inherited from the mother

Research has been carried out. What results can we expect ?

To be continued …

Anne Marie Guillot, Professor at the University of Bordeaux
Member of the ALAF, Board of Directors

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