I Evidence from Early Colonial America

Renaissance Anatomy in the Americas: A Bioarchaeological Perspective on the Earliest Skeletal Evidence of Autopsy in the New World

Thomas A. Crist and Marcella H. Sorg


In October 1564, Andreas Vesalius, the Flemish author of history’s most significant text on human anatomy, died on the Greek island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. On a voyage from Egypt to Venice, Vesalius’s ship had been caught for more than a month in severe storms and he was probably suffering from scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) when he made it to shore and died shortly afterwards (Biesbrouck and Steeno 2010, 2011). The body of the “father of modern medicine” whose work forever established human dissection as the core of medical education was interred without an autopsy in a grave outside the island’s Roman Catholic church and has been since lost to the ages.

Exactly 40 years later across the Atlantic Ocean in New France, the first snow began to fall on Samuel de Champlain’s settlement on tiny Saint Croix Island, located in the middle of the river that now serves as the border between Maine and Canada (Fig. 2.1). Champlain (1574-1635), later known as the “father of New France,” was the surveyor and mapmaker for a colonizing expedition directed by the Huguenot nobleman Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons (1564-1628), to whom King Henri IV had granted a fur trade monopoly. Unprepared for the freezing temperatures and lacking sufficient food and fresh water, Champlain and 78 other colonists became trapped on the island over the severe winter of 1604-1605. As he reported 8 years later in his

T.A. Crist (*)

Programs in Physical Therapy and Sociology/Anthropology, Utica College, 1600 Burrstone Road, Utica, NY 13502, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

M.H. Sorg

Department of Anthropology, University of Maine,

5773 South Stevens Halt, Orono, ME 04469, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

K.C. Nystrom (ed.), The Bioarchaeology of Dissection and Autopsy in the United States, Bioarchaeology and Social Theory, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-26836-1_2

Location of Saint Croix Island, Maine

Fig. 2.1 Location of Saint Croix Island, Maine

book Les Voyages, 35 of the men died of an illness that Champlain called “mal de la terre (land sickness), otherwise scurbut” (Champlain (1922 [1613]:303). Based in part on Champlain’s descriptions of the colonists’ clinical symptoms, modern diagnosis indicates that they had indeed suffered from scurvy (Crist and Sorg 2014).

Champlain also provided an eyewitness account of the autopsies performed by the settlement’s barber- surgeons as they attempted to solve the mystery of the deadly illness at a time when nutritional deficiencies were not understood. Writing that “We could find no remedy with which to cure these maladies. We opened several of them to determine the cause of their illness,” Champlain (1922 [1613]:304) then described the results of only the second postmortem examination reported by Europeans in North America. Some 400 years later, excavations of the settlement’s cemetery at Saint Croix Island, now an International Historic Site, unearthed the remains of a young man who had been subject to one of the autopsies that Champlain had written about. The youngest of the 25 men discovered in the graves, Burial 10’s head had been sawn open to examine his brain and his calotte subsequently replaced under his scalp before he was buried. With this unequivocal evidence of a craniotomy, Burial 10 currently represents the earliest skeletal evidence of autopsy found in the New World.

Bioarchaeologists analyze human remains to reconstruct past human behavior within diachronic, sociocultural frameworks. Researchers employ the methods of skeletal analysis and differential diagnosis to document and better understand aspects of the past that are unavailable from other archaeological and documentary sources. Apart from the resulting paleopathological information (Waldron and Rogers 1987), among recent areas of interest are the social impacts of disease, status differences and class inequality, and colonization on different population subgroups, as well as the various roles the body as a material object plays in both life and in death (Agarwal and Glencross 2011; Murphy 2008). To most effectively explore these areas, this chapter adopts a biocultural perspective that describes and discusses the remarkable discovery of Burial 10’s craniotomy at one of New France’s earliest settlements. Combined with Champlain’s written account, analysis of the young man’s remains provides a unique opportunity to explore the practice of autopsy in late Renaissance Europe and its importation to the New World. It was during this period in Europe that human bodies were transformed into commodities for use as educational tools due to the strong influence of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) and Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), the renowned French Royal Surgeon later called the “father of forensic pathology.” Champlain’s French barber-surgeons would have been familiar with their anatomical texts in 1604 and ready to conduct the autopsies ordered by Dugua as his colonists died during the winter at Saint Croix Island.

The French physicians and surgeons of the Renaissance performed most of their autopsies on the corpses of royalty and conducted their educational dissections using the remains of criminals, the poor, and foreigners (Cazort 1996; Park 1994; Prioreschi 2001). Given this social context, would Dugua have ordered autopsies of the gentlemen at his settlement? In his account of that tragic winter at Saint Croix Island, Champlain (1922 [1613]) did not provide the names of any of the 35 deceased men nor specify who had been autopsied. The one gentleman whose death recently has been confirmed through documentary research was Rene Noel, a 31-year-old nobleman known as the Sieur de La Motte Bourgjoli who reportedly died of scurvy on March 31, 1605 and was buried the same day (J.S. Pendery 2012). With greater access to the limited food available at the island, it is likely that few if any of the other noblemen were among the deceased. Even if noblemen did perish, did Dugua and his fellow gentlemen marginalize the workers and servants, as they would have back in France, by using their bodies in failed attempts to discover the cause of their illnesses? Could religious differences have played any role in who was chosen for autopsy? Some inferences can be drawn to address these questions by considering the history of autopsy and dissection in Europe and through a careful reading of Champlain’s subsequent works and those of his contemporary Marc Lescarbot (1570-1642), a Parisian lawyer and historian who spent the winter of 1606-1607 in New France with Champlain and several of the other Saint Croix Island survivors.

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