Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Archaeological History In A Toenail

"That zinc deficiency would explain that he [dead seaman] had a very low immune function. In the tough environment, he probably contracted infections and died from [tuberculosis]."
"We see a clear decline of meat consumption. If all the canned food [had lasted] he should not have [had] that problem. It's probably because some of the canned food was spoiled."
"We would expect, with the meat declining, he would eat a lot of seafood. But not really. Either he was not successful at getting seafood or they were just not able to do it."
"Being able to have the opportunity to work on this and try to contribute to solve this puzzle is an honour. Hopefully, we'll be able to continue working on finding more about them [the remains]."
Laurie Chan, co-author study on the fate of the Franklin Expedition
A 1945 photo of skulls, bleached white by the sun, discovered around King William Island in what is now Nunavut.
National Archives of Canada     A 1945 photo of skulls, bleached white by the sun, discovered around King William Island in what is now Nunavut.

Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, two researchers have broken new ground in their study, scientifically discerning more of the details in an effort to understand what had occurred to the crews of the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, that led to their deaths. With the use of lasers and high-energy beams the two researchers, Laurie Chan and Jennie Christensen, made their surprise discovery that it was not lead consumption from the food cans that killed the crew attempting to make their way back to civilization, out of the high Arctic.

It had always been assumed that they died of lead poisoning, but it seems that from the researchers' examination of a minute element of the remains of seaman John Hartnell, his body was shedding lead normally present in human tissues, giving previous researchers the impression that lead poisoning was the suspected cause of death. It was, instead, a severe zinc deficiency that was responsible for the deaths of the starving seamen, desperate to find their way to safety.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images    From a painting by W Turner Smith depicting Franklin Expedition members attempting to leave the Arctic on foot. 
 
Jennie Christensen contacted Laurie Chan at the University of Ottawa with the suggestion they team up to do some research. With experience in toxicology as an environmental consultant, Dr. Christensen felt they might find it useful to examine one of the corpses from the Franklin Expedition that had been discovered in 1984 on Beechey Island, with the use of the most advanced laser technology, the Canadian Light Source, in Saskatoon.

It has long been hypothesized that if explorers looking for the fabled Northwest Passage in the Arctic had abandoned their European mindset about survival in the Arctic environment with its hostile geological landscape and miserable weather conditions, to emulate the manner in which the area's inhabitants, the Inuit, adapted their lifestyle to those same conditions, they might have survived their dreadful ordeal. But the sturdy Englishmen that represented the seafaring explorations of the time could see no benefit in abandoning tradition under these extreme conditions.

From the research the two scientists conducted it became obvious that the 129 crew members were facing a challenge they were ill equipped to survive. By the time they set out to attempt to make their way on foot to safety from the unforgiving Arctic winter when their ships were caught in the ice, their leader, John Franklin, was already dead, though his body has never been recovered. The expedition had run low on its supplies well before the two ships became ice-stranded.

And they discovered this by closely examining and intuitively parsing a tiny sliver of toenail. They had made application to the Museum of History and the Inuit Heritage Trust which holds custody of the bodies, to enable them to examine one of the corpses. The researchers, as a result, were given a slender portion of toenail from the body of able seaman John Hartnell. With the use of lasers and the synchrotron of the University of Saskatchewan the toenail piece was examined.

They were able to discern three months' worth of data from that sliver. Toenails grow at the rate of about three millimetres monthly. By peering within a layer in the toenail that would have been protected from outside contaminants, they were able to determine the state of the seaman's health before his death, and what he had consumed to remain alive. Physically feeble from a lack of zinc in his system, it was revealed he had eaten very little meat.

It was assumed that the ships' store of canned meat went unconsumed because they had been contaminated, so seafood would have been the obvious replacement. Yet the sailors did not appear to have become devoted fishermen to keep themselves in health, which speedily declined as a result. There was little seafood residue in Hartnell's toenail. The assumption by the researchers was that what examining that minute portion of this man's remains revealed would also pertain to the other bodies.

Painting by J Franklin Wright
Painting by J Franklin Wright     The Erebus and the Terror. Ships from the 1845 Franklin expedition of Sir John Franklin.

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