King William Island

New identity for Arctic explorer emerges 140 Years Later

Researchers reconstructed the explorer's face (right) and compared it to pictures of the expedition's officers to find a likely match. 
National Maritime Museum

By Wynne Parry - LiveScience

In 1845, two ill-fated British ships headed for the Canadian Arctic in the hope of discovering the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. More than two decades later, the nearly complete skeleton of one of the explorers was recovered from a shallow, stone-covered grave on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.

The remains were then identified as those of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant aboard one of the ships, the HMS Erebus. However, a modern analysis points to another identity for the man.

Whoever he was, this man appears to have died early and so escaped the worst.

"That the body was accorded formal burial suggests that the death occurred before the final throes of the expedition when the dead seem to have been left unburied and, in some cases, cannibalized," write lead researcher Simon Mays of English Heritage, an organization that advises the government on historic issues, and colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The grave, then believed to be Le Vesconte's, was first discovered by native Inuits who later led an American adventurer to it. The body was returned to England, analyzed and buried beneath the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich. (Sir John Franklin led the expedition.)

In 2009, renovations to the monument required that the body be exhumed, creating the opportunity to apply modern forensic techniques.

This wasn't the first time. In the 1980s, a team led by Canadian researcher Owen Beattie studied the remains of three men who also died early during that expedition and were buried in the permafrost on Beechey Island.

Lead levels in these men's tissues were high, as they were among the scattered remains found there, leading to speculation that lead poisoning, possibly from poorly canned foods, had contributed to their deaths.