New World Explorers Sought to Explain Death

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In June 1604, fur traders led by Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua found a site they thought would be ideal for the first settlement in New France. The tiny island in the middle of the St. Croix River, now part of Maine's Acadia National Park, had high bluffs and a clear view downriver to watch for their English rivals.

But winter that year came early and hard, and St. Croix Island proved to be a prison. The men were stuck, trapped by dangerous ice floes moving on the tremendous tides from the nearby Bay of Fundy. By February, they began to die of scurvy; in all, 35 of 79 colonists perished.

The disease was known, but not its cause. In his desperation to find out what was happening to his men, Champlain took the unusual step of ordering autopsies.

"We could find no remedies to cure these maladies," Champlain wrote in his memoirs in 1613. "We opened several of them to determine the cause of their illness."

Now forensic anthropologists studying the St. Croix burial ground have found a cranium with the skullcap cleanly sawed off, along with shallow cut marks they say would have been made by the expedition's barber-surgeon while removing the scalp. Although there are written records of earlier autopsies by European settlers in the New World, the St. Croix find is the earliest skeletal evidence of one.

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