The human bones arrived in a cardboard box and the investigators scrutinized them one by one: About a dozen long bones, more than 25 vertebrae, pieces of a jawbone.
Laid out on a long, rectangular table, the remains held a tale of human tragedy. The investigators – anthropologists working for Parks Canada – began to piece that tale together, helping bring some resolution to a mystery that straddles time and two continents.
The bones have found an identity – at least, as close to one as they will ever get.
The partial skeletons were discovered near the surface of a stony beach on Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula three years ago. Now, officials have determined they are those of three children from Europe who showed signs of malnutrition. They believe they were almost certainly Irish migrants who died in a 19th-century shipwreck in Canadian waters as they fled poverty in search of a better life.
“They are witnesses to a tragic event,” said Pierre Cloutier, an archeologist at Parks Canada. “You can’t have a more tangible witness to tragedy than human remains.”
The findings are poignant for Georges Kavanagh, a resident of Gaspé who traces his ancestors to some of the victims and survivors of the shipwreck. He has been carefully following the story of the bones since they were found. He wants to ensure they get a proper reburial.
“I have a link to these people – I almost consider them my family,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?”
The quest to trace the origins of the bones began in 2011.
A passerby discovered the remains on the shoreline of Cap-des-Rosiers, within the boundaries of the Forillon National Park, 700 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Erosion had exposed them to the elements and disturbed the resting place of three children who likely had little rest in their short lives.
Officials believe the three were probably victims of the wreck of the Carricks, one of the many “coffin ships” that crossed the Atlantic carrying Irish migrants fleeing famine in their homeland. The Carricks was heading to Quebec City, but foundered in a violent storm off Cap-des-Rosiers in 1847.
Reports of the death toll vary, but about 100 bodies washed ashore after the storm and were buried in a mass grave; survivors were taken in by local families. Montreal’s St. Patrick’s parish later erected a stone marker at the site commemorating the tragedy, which stands only 40 yards from where the children’s skeletal remains were found.
Parks Canada sent the bones for analysis to Quebec’s forensics lab in Montreal, then they were taken to the University of Montreal, where anthropologist Isabelle Ribot and graduate student Rémi Toupin began to examine them in detective-like detail.
The length of the bones and other clues indicated the victims were children – two aged between 7 and 9, the other 11 or 12. A curve in one bone pointed to malnutrition consistent with rickets, a condition caused by vitamin D deficiency.
Mr. Toupin scraped off a bit of tooth enamel for a chemical analysis. The results point to a plant-based diet found in Europe that could have included potatoes, a staple in Ireland before the catastrophic blight caused a famine that killed swaths of the population and sent legions into exile.
A clue found on the site offered a glimpse of the victims’ history: An unvarnished, nickel-sized, dark-brown wooden button. It was traced to 19th-century Europe.
“In archeology, we are there to protect memory … and give people an identity and say who they were,” Mr. Toupin said. “We can’t always reach absolute conclusions, but it’s always our goal to go as far as possible in identifying people.”
It would take carbon dating and DNA testing to be sure the victims were aboard the Carricks. Parks Canada, however, says it will not take the analysis any further.
The Carricks was among hundreds of migrant ships bound for the port of Quebec City in 1847, the darkest year of the famine in Ireland. The voyage was perilous for the desperate travellers, who were often weakened by hunger and disease. Nearly 5,300 of those fleeing died on their way to Canada.
The bones from Cap-des-Rosiers are to be repatriated to the Gaspé for reburial next year. Mr. Kavanagh would like to find the precise spot of the common grave and move it, if need be, to prevent other human remains from being disturbed by erosion.
“I want them to be placed in a spot,” Mr. Kavanagh said from his home, “where they can remain for centuries and centuries.”
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