Advancements in computer modelling and archaeological science have allowed archaeologists to determine that a Sadlermiut woman from the nineteenth century did not in fact die of a gun shot wound, but a polar bear attack. The Sadlermiut were an isolated tribe related to the Inuits. For over ten years, archaeologists and technicians from the Canadian Museum of History have been cataloging and investigating the large collection of Nunavut artefacts stored in the museum.
The woman’s remains were originally found in the 1950s, “partially exposed” inside a ring of tents. At first, the cause of death was thought to have been a gun shot to the head. The archaeologists determined that she had been wounded and brought into the tent area where she succumbed to her wounds.
After the skull was noticed during the cataloging of the Canadian Museum of History’s collection however, it was reexamined. Karen Ryan, an archaeologist at the museum, did not accept the original explanation of the woman’s death. Because the Sadlermiut were such an isolated tribe, she felt the chances of the woman having been shot were unlikely. Ryan told Nunatsiaq Online, “When we looked again, we thought: If it wasn’t a gunshot, what could it have been?”
Analysis of the skull proved to be a challenge in and of itself, as the bone was fragile, and the team had to handle the remains with great care and reverence. They decided to create a 3-D model of the skull, and sent it to the Virtual Zooarcheology of the Arctic Project, based in Idaho, so they could continue to investigate the injuries without further damaging the skull.
Further examinations revealed the cause of death was not a gun shot wound. The injuries presented themselves as a mystery at first, as the puncture wounds were on both sides of the skull. The technicians on the Arctic Project then began to compare the puncture wounds on the skull with the bite marks of many native animal species from the area where the remains were discovered. It was then that one of the team members suggested a male polar bear could have caused the injuries to the Sadlermiut woman’s skull. After testing the theory in the 3D model, it was found that the holes in the skull were a close match to an adult polar bear’s bite.
Ryan stated that this find would provide a new understanding of life among the Sadlermiut, who are thought to have gone extinct in the twentieth century due to disease. She said that she could not begin to fathom what had happened to lead the woman to this type of horrific death.
The technological advances of our age have made it possible for a large group of archaeologists and researchers spread across North America to analyse the skull, without physically having to transport it to an office or lab. They used a VZAP site, which allowed them to share the model without having to spend time and funding on travel. The time they saved allowed them to determine the cause of the woman’s death, and gain a better understanding of a tribe that no longer exists.