Solving a northern mystery

April 9, 2015

In 1954 at Native Point, Southampton Island, in what is now Nunavut, a Smithsonian archeologist excavated a partially exposed female skeleton with signs of severe trauma to the skull. The woman belonged to the Sadlermiut, an extremely isolated Inuit group that in the winter of 1902 was decimated by an infectious disease introduced by a whaling boat. No one at Native Point survived the winter.

The skull trauma was originally described as bullet holes. However, as the Museum was preparing the remains of the Sadlermiut woman for repatriation to Nunavut, the idea for the 3D project emerged. “We noticed that the damage to her skull wasn’t consistent with a bullet,” says Karen Ryan, the Museum of History’s Curator for Northern Canada. “We suspected that she’d been attacked by an animal. We needed a way to confirm this while also treating her with respect by minimizing our handling of her fragile remains.”

A virtual solution

The Museum team tasked with solving the mystery of the Sadlermiut woman first documented her injuries. They then created a three-dimensional digital model of her skull. Next, they sent this model to colleagues at the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory, who imported it into a virtual environment where they could use the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project, an online repository of high-resolution 3D models of 169 northern mammals.

The next step was to compare the virtual human skull damage with the virtual jaws of four predators: northern tundra wolf, black bear, grizzly bear and polar bear. Digital modelling can highlight details that might be overlooked or otherwise remain invisible with conventional techniques, but it had never been used to investigate skeletal trauma. As well as matching an animal jaw model to the skull damage in this digital environment, the laboratory team worked with Museum researchers to generate an attack sequence that likely produced the fatal wounds.

The team’s groundbreaking digital analysis pointed to the most terrifying of the four predators — a polar bear.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time archaeologists have used a virtual 3D environment to identify the species of an animal attack from human remains. It allowed us to complete the analysis respectfully, but with high accuracy,” says Ryan, who is also the lead author of the study.

Going home

The discovery brought mixed feelings for the team. “There was the excitement of scientific discovery,” says Ryan. “It was an amazing instance of people with specialized expertise coming together to achieve results you couldn’t get using only traditional approaches. At the same time, there was a sadness about the way she died.”

The Sadlermiut woman will eventually return home as the Canadian Museum of History works with Nunavut to repatriate Inuit remains to the territory.

In addition to Ryan, the project team included Museum curators Matthew Betts and Janet Young, as well as physical anthropologists Megan Gardiner and Vanessa Oliver-Lloyd. The virtual analysis was undertaken by Nicholas Clement and Robert Schlader from the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory. The team recently published a paper about their project in the major scientific journal Arctic, published by the Arctic Institute of North America.

Image: Digital recreation of the attack, produced by Nicholas Clement, Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at the Idaho Museum of Natural History.