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The Bioarchaeology of the Human HeadDecapitation, Decoration, and Deformation$

Michelle Bonogofsky

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813035567

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813035567.001.0001

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Biohistory and Cranial Morphology

Biohistory and Cranial Morphology

A Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

(p.179) 7 Biohistory and Cranial Morphology
The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Christopher M. Stojanowski

William N. Duncan

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Craniometric population allocation is often performed during medico-legal and biohistorical investigations of human remains, although such work has been criticized for being typological. This chapter presents a historical case study from the southeastern United States (Georgia) which implements the specific population approach of Brues. This approach is not typological because it uses data from populations from the correct time and place for comparative purposes rather than broad racial categories. The specimen is purported to be a martyred Spanish priest from the sixteenth century. Using archaeological and historical data, a comparative framework that targets the most likely source populations was constructed. Principal components analysis failed to falsify the hypothesis that the skull was most similar to a medieval Spanish population. The significance of the chapter is its demonstration of the potential to conduct population affinity analysis by drawing on already available data without using racial categories.

Keywords:   craniometric allocation, biodistance, Spanish Florida, forensic anthropology, Discriminant Function Analysis, Franciscans

As several chapters in this volume have shown, skulls are collected from ancestors and enemies, insiders and outsiders, men, women, and children, and used for an array of purposes with numerous connotations (see also chapters in Bonogofsky 2006). Thus, it is not surprising that forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists frequently encounter isolated examples in a variety of contexts other than criminal investigations and archaeological sites.

Skulls are found in homes (as family heirlooms), in museums, in pawnshops, and on eBay (Huxley and Finnegan 2004; Murad and Murad 2000; Steadman 2003; Willey and Leach 2003). They are collected as war trophies (Sledzik and Ousley 1991), traded as curiosities and as art, and sold for classroom instruction. This ephemeral, symbolic valuation directly translates into the unfortunate commercial value of human remains; skulls are always the most expensive element of the human body. While the people collecting human skulls may do so for a variety of reasons, ranging from ritual purposes to morbid novelty, the skulls are also significant to the societies from which they were taken because they often reflect acts of violence. Sometimes the destruction of an object can give it additional meaning and even sacred status. Taussig 1999 calls this type of violence defacement. It may occur to a variety of objects, but humans and human remains are common targets. For example, Geronimo's remains would have been sacred to his descendants under any circumstances, but the rumor that they were taken and held by the Skull and Bones fraternity turns their potential sacrality into a kinetic one. The point is that isolated skulls are by definition divorced from their original contexts, and that divorce oftentimes animates the latent symbolic potency of such skulls for the relatives of the deceased. Thus, returning the remains to the nearest kin or native culture is one of the basic goals for anthropologists in such cases. As a result, one of the fundamental questions we must (p.180) address when presented with isolated skulls is one of population affinity. By this we mean affinity in both its broadest (temporal and geographical affinity to specific biological populations) and its narrowest (positive identification of an individual) senses. How, then, can we identify the population to which a recovered skull is most similar so that we might return it to the appropriate descendant community? This is a particularly important question when the deceased are far removed in time or when circumstances make individuation impossible, and it is an extremely difficult one to answer.

Because of this articulation with descendant communities, returning remains to the appropriate interest group is one of the most important and re-warding aspects of forensic practice. One common way of dealing with isolated skulls is to compare them to a preexisting data framework, such as the Howells database (Howells 1989, 1995), or to use Fordisc (Jantz and Moore-Jansen 1988; Ousley and Jantz 1996, 1998), a program that applies multivariate statistical analysis to allocate unknown crania to predetermined comparative population samples. The shortcomings of such analyses have been documented and debated (Belcher et al. 2002; Campbell and Armelagos 2007; Freid et al. 2005; Naar et al. 2006; Williams et al. 2005), but no alternatives have been proposed. The impasse seems to focus on the use of the program itself and how best to interpret its results rather than advancing the method in a manner that considers the recent evolutionary history of craniofacial form. Human crania have demonstrated significant change within populations in as little as a single generation (Gravlee et al. 2003a, 2003b), such that collapsing time periods may not provide the most accurate results. Similarly, substituting one sample for another within a folk taxonomy of “social races” is problematic, for various methodological and theoretical reasons, as opponents of forensic anthropology have been quick to point out (Armelagos and Van Gerven 2003; Goodman 1997; Goodman and Armelagos 1996; Smay and Armelagos 2000).

In this chapter, we describe our attempt to assess population affinity of a calvaria (Fort King George 121) that has been attributed to a sixteenth-century priest killed and beheaded in coastal Georgia during Spanish occupation of the region (figure 7.1). This individual, Fray Pedro de Corpa, along with four other priests killed during the same rebellion, is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church (Harkins 1990), and our efforts at population affinity assessment speak directly to the issue of cultural patrimony. Our participation was initiated at the request of the Franciscan Order so that some closure to this local legend could be obtained. Our contribution to this volume is how we construct a comparative data matrix in an attempt to avoid reifying folk taxonomies of social races and ignoring the now well-documented reality (p.181)

Biohistory and Cranial MorphologyA Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

Figure 7.1. Right lateral view of the Fort King George (FKG-121) calvaria.

of short-term secular change in craniofacial form. We do so by using historical and archaeological data to reconstruct the occupation history of the archaeological site complex at which the Fort King George calvaria (hereafter FKG-121) was recovered, an approach advocated by Brues 1992 but infrequently used in practice.

Methodological Context

To fully explain the rationale behind our approach, a brief review of previous cranial allocation studies is warranted. Comparative craniometry proceeds under a rather standardized approach. An individual cranium is allocated to one of a number of comparative populations based on multivariate analysis of craniofacial dimensions. It is important to note that the researcher is the one defining the sampling universe by selecting which populations should be used in the comparison. The theoretical basis of this approach is that the population to which the cranium is most similar is the most likely source population. The entire process proceeds under the assumption that there is geographical patterning to human craniofacial form. The ability to accurately assess population (p.182) affinity depends on the distance between the comparative population means (the more distinct the means, the better), the degree of variability within each comparative population (the lower the variability, the better), and the ability of the researcher to capture this degree of variability in his or her data analysis (usually the more variables, the better) and interpret the results accordingly. This last point is critical because often the analysis suggests a nonresult but the researcher may not recognize it as such. If the measurement set produces poor separation between comparative populations, or if the selected comparative samples are poor representatives of the population to which the isolated skull actually belongs, there is little hope for an accurate allocation.

The dissemination of Fordisc (Jantz and Moore-Jansen 1988; Ousley and Jantz 1996, 1998) and, in its later versions, the inclusion of craniometric data from the W. W. Howells data set, had a tremendous influence on the practice of comparative craniometry. The ability to analyze data from individual skulls using a prepackaged program was invaluable for assessment of population affinity, and its use has become widespread in numerous formal and informal forensic settings. Unfortunately, as the authors of that software note, the data sets included do not necessarily represent a majority of human craniometric variation (Ousley and Jantz 1996, 1998). The uninformed use of these existing databases may be problematic for four reasons.

First is the assumption that different geographical populations of humans are sufficiently distinct craniometrically from one another as well as sufficiently homogenous intrapopulationally that they can be distinguished. “Sufficiently” is defined in terms of whether or not distances between populations exceed the degree of overlap in phenotypic variability. In other words, researchers must be able to distinguish between cranial variations that exist within a population from variation between populations. A major criticism levied against forensic anthropology is that variation is ultimately continuous, rather than discrete (Armelagos and Van Gerven 2003; Goodman and Armelagos 1996; Williams et al. 2005), and this drawback is surmountable only if the measurements are capable of the required level of group separation (itself determined by the degree of intrapopulation variability). As a criticism, this applies not only to Fordisc but also to all attempts at craniometric affinity assessment.

Second, the comparative samples included in Fordisc are not time sensitive, which is problematic given known secular changes in craniofacial form (Angel 1976; Jantz 2001; Jantz and Meadows-Jantz 2000; Sparks and Jantz 2002; Wescott and Jantz 2005), which have most prominently been discussed in the context of the Boas immigrant data set (Gravlee et al. 2003a, 2003b; Sparks and Jantz 2002). Eighteenth-century Euro-American crania may be quite (p.183) distinct from modern Euro-American crania, although such secular changes may not significantly blur existing geographically based craniofacial diversity. Again, the effects of microevolutionary change on the success of an allocation analysis depend on the degree of separation between the comparative populations.

Third, because of the ever-changing landscape of craniofacial diversity, an unknown specimen is unlikely to be well represented by the samples included in either the Forensic Data Bank (FDB) or Howells data set, a fact supported by low typicality probabilities (i.e., the probability that an unknown individual belongs to a specific group) reported when using these databases (see also Ross et al. 2004; Ubelaker et al. 2002). A low typicality probability indicates that the unknown skull is an outlier in reference to the comparative populations and should be interpreted as a nonresult.

Fourth, there is a tendency to reify racial types and collapse time. For example, in one of the most frequently cited craniometric allocation methods (Giles and Elliot 1962), all Native Americans (15,000+ years across two continents) are represented by the Archaic period Indian Knoll cemetery from Kentucky. Given the range of phenotypic variability within the Americas (Ross et al. 2002), such an approach is essentialist and typological because it assumes that every Native American in the Western hemisphere is more similar to all other Native Americans than to anyone who originated on another continent.

Historical and Archaeological Context

The Fort King George “skull” was reportedly found during excavations along the banks of the Darien River in Georgia by Sheila Caldwell in the 1950s (figure 7.2). The bluff had been the location of the British Fort King George during the 1720s and prior to that had been the site of two consecutive Spanish missions dating from the late sixteenth through late seventeenth centuries (Caldwell 1953, 1954). Native Americans had inhabited the bluff for as long as three thousand years prior to the establishment of the European context (Caldwell 1943) and during historic times were associated with the Guale polity. The Guale were missionized by the Spanish beginning in the late sixteenth century (Jones 1978; Worth 1995), and it was during this initial Spanish occupation of the area that the story of Pedro de Corpa emerged.

Pedro de Corpa was one of a half-dozen Franciscan friars serving mission communities along the Georgia coast during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Because of political turmoil, disease, demographic collapse, and general resistance to the Spanish presence, revolts were a common feature of the earliest phases of conversion to Catholicism. In 1597, a large rebellion (p.184)

Biohistory and Cranial MorphologyA Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

Figure 7.2. Map of northern Florida and southern Georgia with the Fort King George site location indicated by the asterisk.

occurred among the Guale, which resulted in the killing of five Franciscans (Pedro de Corpa at Tolomato, Blas de Rodriguez and Miguel de Auñón on the island of Guale, Antonio de Badajoz at Tupiqui, and Francisco de Veráscola at Asao) and the detainment and torment of a sixth (Francisco de Avila). Although internal politics surely played some role in this rebellion, received wisdom suggests that the violence erupted because of the enforcement of a strict ban on polygamy and the punishment of a youth named Juanillo, the heir to an esteemed political office, for taking a second wife (Geiger 1937; Lanning 1935; Oré 1936). In the weeks of violence that followed, which included heavy-handed Spanish reprisals, the missions were destroyed and missionary efforts were stalled for nearly a decade. Three of the friars' bodies were located and recovered (Barcia 1951 [1723]: 188–189; Geiger 1937: 92, 94n77, 112; Harkins 1990: 471; Lanning 1935: 87, 89, 96; Omaechevarría 1955: 310); however, the bodies of Pedro de Corpa and Francisco de Veráscola were never found and (p.185) presumably remain buried somewhere along the Georgia coast to this day (Lanning 1935).

Based on a limited historical record, the following can be ascertained about the two missing Georgia martyrs. Both Pedro de Corpa and Francisco de Veráscola were killed via blunt-force trauma using wooden weapons called macanas (Brooks 1906: 41, 43, 45; Lanning 1935: 89–90). Pedro de Corpa was beheaded, and his head was then impaled and displayed at the village he served (Barcia 1951 [1723]: 182; Lanning 1935: 86; Oré 1936: 73–74), but the skull was either moved or hidden shortly after his death, because it was not observed when the Spanish governor visited the Tolomato mission some weeks after the rebellion began (see note 46, chapter 8 in Oré 1936).

Both friars may have been scalped, as this was common practice at the time and documented during the revolt (Lanning 1935: 95). The Spanish retaliatory force found scalps, but it is not known to whom they belonged. The final critical detail is the physical location of the mission each friar served: de Corpa served the Tolomato community, while Francisco de Veráscola served the Asao community. Considerable debate exists about the locations of these missions and villages (see Jones 1978; Worth 1995, 2004). Initial historical opinion placed Tolomato near the Darien River (Lanning 1935), and this assumption, combined with the report of finding a broken human cranium with no associated remains, led to the original attribution to Pedro de Corpa. However, morerecent analysis of historical texts suggests that the Darien bluffs were the location of the village of Asao during the sixteenth century (Jones 1978; Worth 1995, 2004). In either case, a Spanish priest is known to have been killed during the sixteenth century along the banks of the Darien River, where the English would eventually establish Fort King George.

Previous Analyses

Previous analysis of the calvaria (Stojanowski and Duncan 2008, 2009) indicates that the individual was male and between thirty and fifty years old at the time of death, which is consistent with what is known about both Pedro de Corpa and Francisco de Veráscola (Harkins n.d.). The pattern of fractures is consistent with, but not diagnostic of, the story of Pedro de Corpa's murder. A possible Lefort III fracture—the complete detachment of the face from the cranial vault—was documented. The cranial base was damaged, which is possibly consistent with decapitation and subsequent impalement of the severed skull (figure 7.3; see Montgomery, Knüsel, and Tucker this volume; O'Donnabhain this volume). No evidence of scalping was observed, a detail (p.186)

Biohistory and Cranial MorphologyA Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

Figure 7.3. Inferior view of the Fort King George calvaria, demonstrating damage to the cranial base consistent with impalement of the skull.

mitigated by the degree of cortical exfoliation and the possibility that the Guale did not use steel tools to scalp their victims.

Initial comparative craniometric analysis suggested a non-Native American affinity when compared to samples within the FDB and Howells data set (Stojanowski and Duncan 2008). Based on vault shape, FKG-121 was allocated to the Egyptian (presumed “Caucasoid”; see Howells 1989, 1995) series in the Howells data set with typicality probabilities ranging from approximately .20 to .001 depending on which suite of measurements was used (Stojanowski and Duncan 2008). Comparison with data from the FDB produced an allocation to the European sample with a low typicality probability (.072) (Stojanowski and Duncan 2008). The low typicality probability indicates one problem with current approaches to craniometric affinity assessment using published software (Fordisc) and data sets (FDB and the Howells data set); simply put, these data sets are incomplete representations of global human craniofacial form, as the authors of the software take pains to note.

A Different Approach to Population Affinity Assessment

Given the low typicality probabilities often reported in forensic cranial allocation studies, documented changes in craniofacial form through time, and well-founded critiques of typological approaches to ancestry assessment that (p.187) reify gross morphological types, we developed a different approach for this analysis of FKG-121. The method we use is simple and designed to address a specific hypothesis: Is it possible to exclude the possibility that FKG-121 belonged to one of the missing Georgia martyrs based on craniometric form?

The most appropriate comparative framework is one that is constructed using samples of the appropriate age (roughly sixteenth through nineteenth century) incorporating samples from populations that could actually be represented by the specimen in question. For example, rather than using a sample of Native Americans from the southwestern United States (included in Fordisc 2.0), seventeenth-century Arikara from North Dakota, penecontemporary Chumash of California, or a sample of ancient Peruvian skulls (all of which are included in the Howells data set) to evaluate whether the Fort King George calvaria could be “Native American,” the approach advocated here uses indigenous Guale crania from the Georgia coast for comparison. Likewise, there is little a priori reason to presume, unless one assumes a racial approach to human variation, that medieval Norse or penecontemporary Hungarian populations are representative of seventeenth-century Spain or that twentieth-century African-American populations are reflective of the earliest West African slaves imported to the New World. Therefore, in an effort to anchor our analyses within a local population using a nonracial approach to human variation, we begin with a brief discussion of the historical and archaeological setting of this part of Georgia, focusing on the archaeological history of the Darien bluffs, in particular.

Human Occupation at the Fort King George Site

Joseph Caldwell's excavation along the Darien bluffs found evidence for Native American occupation dating to three thousand years ago (Caldwell 1943). Sheila Caldwell conducted an extensive excavation along the bluff and identified two distinct periods of Guale-Spanish occupation, the first dating from the time of the Georgia martyrs (1570–1597) and the second representing a seventeenth-century mission later located there (Caldwell 1953, 1954), both of which likely had associated burials. The latter mission was abandoned in 1686 when the Guale retreated south in the wake of English encroachment, slave raids by the Westo, and assaults on the Georgia coast by pirates (Worth 1995). From 1686 until 1721, the area was devoid of permanent occupation, although there was likely an itinerant Native American presence. In 1721, John Barnwell constructed Fort King George (in service until 1727), which housed several hundred English soldiers (Lewis 1967: 24), many of whom were buried in a formal cemetery near the fort (Caldwell 1943). A company of Swiss deserters (p.188) from French Louisiana also made an appearance at the fort (Cook 1990: 49), and Barnwell's journal indicates the presence of African slaves (1926: 198), who were brought to North America during the earliest colonization efforts by the Spanish. After the fort burned in 1727, the area was reoccupied under direction from John Oglethorpe by 177 Scottish Highlanders who would go on to found the town of New Inverness, which became modern-day Darien. A tabby house (built of shell-based concrete) was constructed on the site in 1803 (Cook 1990: xvi). The later history of the site was dominated by lumber operations, beginning in 1806 with the Eastern Saw Mill Company (Kelso 1968), which maintained a presence until the Civil War. In 1878 the Hilton Timber and Lumber Company established another milling operation that seemed to have been in service until 1914, when the area was abandoned once again (Kelso 1968).

Constructing a Comparative Database

Given this site's occupational history, the Fort King George calvaria could represent one of many different populations: a precontact or colonial period Native American from the local Guale who lived along the Darien bluffs during two phases of Spanish occupation; an African slave, likely from a West African country, or a colonial period African-American; a Euro-American from the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century or, more specifically, an eighteenth-century English soldier or Scottish Highlander; or a Spaniard from the sixteenth or seventeenth century (if Pedro de Corpa) or a Basque of similar age (if Francisco de Veráscola). None of these specific populations is represented in the Howells data set. However, we were able to extract published data for many of these populations from the literature ( table 7.1). Published raw data were available for the Scottish, English, West African, and Guale population samples, while colonial period Euro-American and African-American population samples were copied from the archives at the Smithsonian Institution, where they were included in the papers of J. Lawrence Angel. However, only published means were available for the critical samples from late medieval Spanish and Basque populations. Therefore, a more informal, phenetic approach was used for this analysis in recognition of the limitations of this methodology.

One of the more difficult issues was defining the list of data variables. FKG-121 is an incomplete specimen preserving only the braincase and lacking the anterior portion of the foramen magnum. This latter point means that estimates of cranial vault height and base length cannot be measured on FKG-12l. In addition, the splanchnocranium is entirely absent and the critical features (p.189) of facial geometry, which demonstrate geographical patterning in humans (nasal and cheek shape), are not preserved. When this physical limitation is combined with the vagaries of publication trends by time and by country, the available list of measurement variables that were both present on FKG-121 and available in the literature diminished. In the final analysis, we used only six variables that capture aspects of cranial vault length and breadth: maximum cranial length (GOL), frontal chord (FRC), parietal chord (PAC), occipital chord (OCC), frontal arc (FAC), and maximum cranial breadth (XCB). Measurements for biasterionic breadth (ASB) and biauricular breadth (AUB) were recordable for FKG-121 but not consistently reported in the literature.

Means were generated by national or ethnic group for each population sample for broad time periods that correspond with the colonial period in North America (AD 1600–1800s), as summarized in table 7.1. Because of our certainty that FKG-121 is male based on the robusticity of key features of cranial morphology (mastoid process, nuchal crest, glabella projection), we only included data for male individuals. The resulting matrix of population means was then subjected to principal components analysis to extract common size-and shape-based components among variable means. These components were then plotted along with the FKG-121 calvaria to determine the most similar source population.


The principal components analysis produced three components with eigenvalues greater than one, representing 85 percent of the original variation among sample means. Variable loadings indicate that factor 1 represents a contrast between cranial length and breadth; factor 2 is more difficult to interpret but seems to contrast the length of the parietal bone in relationship to the other variables; while factor 3 represents a contrast between the shape and size of the frontal bone relative to the occipital bone. The bivariate plot for principal components 1 and 2 is presented in figure 7.4. Several observations are noteworthy. First, despite the use of sample means for only six craniometric variables, geographic divisions are well represented in this figure: the two Native American samples are isolated in the upper left corner of the plot, the West African sample is more isolated in the lower left corner of the plot, the two African-American colonial period samples are closer to the West African sample than they are to contemporary Euro-American colonial samples, and the samples from European populations form a cluster in the middle of the figure. Second, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century Euro-American samples plot very closely to the contemporary seventeenth-century and (p.190)

Table 7.1. Comparative populations used for comparison of FKG-l21



Time period

Spanish: Santa María de Hito

Galera and Garralda 1992

AD 800–1100

Spanish: Linares

Ruiz et al. 1995

AD 1900–1950

Spanish: Tarragona Spanish

Pons Rosell 1949

AD 200–400

Visigoths: Iberian Spanish

Varela 1974–75

AD 500–600

Jewish Montiuich

Prevosti and Prevosti 1951

AD 1000–1300

Spanish: Palacios de la Sierra (Burgos)

Souich et al. 1990

AD 900–1200

Spanish: Villanueva de Soportilla

Souich et al. 1991

AD 800–1100

Cataluna central (medieval Christian)

Vives 1987

AD 800–1100

Spanish: Monasterio de Suso (San Millán de la Cogolla)

Martín Rivas and Souich 1981

AD 900–1050

Spanish: Santa María de la Piscina (San Vicente de la Sonsierra)

Souich and Martín Rivas 1982

AD 1000–1200

Spanish: Terrassa, Necrópolis de 1a Placa Vella

Jordana and Malgosa 2002

AD 1500–1600

Basque: Modern

Rúa 1985

AD 900

Basque: Guipuzcoa, Urtiaga, Zaraus

Aranzadi 1914; Morant 1929

AD 1900?

Basque: Necrópolis de Santa Eulalia

Rodriguez 1981

AD 800–900

Basque: Necrópolis de Ordoñana

Fernandez de Prado 1978


Basque: Necrópolis de Castros de Lastra

Arenal and Rúa 1987

AD 800

Basque: San Juan de Momoitio

Arenal and Rúa 1987

AD 1000

English: 17th century (Moorfields, Whitechapel, Faningdon)

Hooke 1926; MacDonnell 1904, 1906

AD 1600–1700

English: Anglo-Saxon period (Bidford-on-Avon, Burwell)

Brash and Young 1935; Layard and Young 1935; Morant 1926

AD 1000

Scottish (various proveniences)

Reid 1926; Turner 1901

AD 1800–1900

West Scottish Lowlands (various proveniences)

Young 1931

AD 1850–1900

Euro-American 17th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archives;a King and Ubelaker 1996; Ubelaker n.d.

AD 1600–1700

Euro-American 18th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archives;a Carter et al. 2004

AD 1700–1800

Euro-American 19th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archives;a Dailey et al. 1972

AD 1800–1900

African-American 18th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archivesa

AD 1700–1800

African-American 19th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archives;a Beck 1980; Mann and Krakker 1989; Rose 1985; Thomas et al. 1977

AD 1800–1900

American 20th century*

Angel collection, Smithsonian Archivesa

AD 1900–1950

Guale late precontact

La Florida Bioarchaeology Project

AD 1200–1500

Guale postcontact

La Florida Bioarchaeology Project

AD 1600–1700

West Africa*

Benington and Pearson 1912; Howells data set;b Keith 1911; Malcolm 1920; Shrubsall 1899; von Luschan collection,c AMNH

AD 1850–1925

(a) J. L. Angel data copied from original data cards on file at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

(c) Data measured by authors; African crania part of the von Luschan collection at the American Museum of Natural History.

(*) See appendix for further provenience information.

(p.191) (p.192)
Biohistory and Cranial MorphologyA Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

Figure 7.4. Bivariate principal components plot for population distributions in Spanish colonial Georgia. Asterisk = FKG-121; solid black circle = medieval Spanish; solid black square = Basque; plus sign = colonial Euro-American; upward-pointing triangle = English; downward-pointing triangle = Scottish; solid black diamond = colonial African-American; star = Native American Guale; × = West African. Two standard deviation confidence intervals are drawn around the Basque, Spanish, and Euro-American colonial population distributions.

Anglo-Saxon period English samples, as one might expect. Third, despite the geographical congruencies, there is considerable overlap among the Euro-American, English, Spanish, Basque, and Scottish samples. This is not unexpected given the small number of variables used.

In terms of the identity of the FKG-121 calvaria, this analysis does little to exclude the possibility that one of the Georgia martyrs is represented here. In fact, this result is about as confirmatory as one could expect given the data and analytical limitations. FKG-121 (indicated by an asterisk in figure 7.4) is most phenotypically similar to the Spanish population from the Monasterio de Suso (San Millán de la Cogolla) that dates to approximately AD 1000. FKG-121 is also similar to the three medieval Basque samples (San Juan de Momoitio, Necrópolis de Castros de Lastra, Necrópolis de Ordoñana) and to the medieval Spanish sample from Santa María de Hito. Although FKG-121 falls outside the two standard deviation confidence interval for the series of (p.193) Spanish samples (possibly reflecting the inclusion of older Spanish samples), it does fall within the confidence interval for the Basque samples. Therefore, while this analysis lacks enough specificity to distinguish Basque from Spanish samples craniometrically, the five samples to which FKG-12l is most similar are, intriguingly, all from the Iberian Peninsula. This analysis, using site occupational history to construct a more suitable comparative data universe, confirms the distinction between FKG-l21 and Native American crania and also suggests that FKG-12l is not an individual of African ancestry. So we can conclude not only that FKG-12l appears “European” but also that it appears Iberian or even Spanish in affiliation.


In 1992, Alice Brues emphasized the dichotomy between “general race vs. specific population” in forensic assessment of population affinity. Although this article is well known, we are unaware whether other scholars have followed her advice. As an alternative to current practices, however, the methodology we adopted here does allay some of the more severe criticisms of forensic anthropology within the discipline. In particular, the construction of a regionally defined comparative population database based on archaeological and historical reconstruction of site occupational histories does not fall into the trap of race science, which collapses human variation into “European,” “African,” or “Native American” types without distinguishing between them temporally or considering secular trends that may occur even in spatially proximate populations. In addition, the approach described above obviates concerns about microevolutionary changes within a population by using samples of the appropriate age for comparison. Therefore, several of the major criticisms of population affinity assessment using craniometric analysis are addressed by an approach based on local population history. Simply put, we ask not merely whether FKG-121 could be European but, more precisely, whether FKG-121 could be a sixteenth-century Spaniard or Basque.

The method used here is not without limitations. Most evident is the reliance on published data sets, the vagaries of variable reporting, interobserver error, and the subsequent need to use a more phenetic approach based on comparisons among sample means rather than individuals. While unavoidable at this point in our analysis of FKG-121 because of the lack of published raw data for Medieval period Spanish crania, the use of sample means in the principal components analysis removes any consideration of the sample variances. Generating statistical probabilities of membership in each population is therefore impossible. As reported above, we can make informed statements (p.194) about overall similarity; based on this analysis, FKG-121 could very well be Pedro de Corpa or Francisco de Veráscola. However, there is no way to assess the degree of overlap among the comparative samples.

Future analysis of FKG-121 would be advanced if Spanish cranial data of the appropriate age were available. Similar analyses of biohistorical interest would also benefit from a much broader culture of data dissemination within forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. Some archaeologists have been increasingly vocal in advocating for open source publishing, and such mechanisms of data exchange already exist in anthropological genetics. There is no reason why similar forums should be lacking in skeletal biology. The existence of extensive databases of regional populations would allow the use of the “local population” approach in numerous consultation venues, from formal medico-legal forensic investigations to informal case reports generated in the context of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) inventorying. And it is this point that brings this chapter full circle.

Anthropologists commonly encounter isolated skulls because such skulls have been involved in or are the product of a violent act of defacement (in the sense of Taussig 1999). Their normal cultural meanings, whatever those may be in a given context, have changed to include elevated symbolic power by virtue of that defacement, and as a result the public is oftentimes more invested in those remains than they might otherwise be. This elevated interest can and should be a point of engagement between anthropology and the public. When encountering isolated skulls, anthropologists do more than simply take what people bring us, apply calipers and software to make bivariate plots, and allocate remains. The anthropologist interacts with an individual whose remains have accrued additional meaning and symbolism through the process of defacement. Although forensic assessment does not necessarily ameliorate or undo the defacement, the analysis itself becomes another part in an ongoing process that is ultimately one of social reproduction.

Anthropologists contribute by bringing closure; we help give certainty about the past to survivors. Instead of focusing on an act of violence, group members are able to acknowledge the violence suffered by the individual and ritually return that individual to the collective, which has survived. In this case, the Franciscans seek to identify and honor one of their own, bringing the life and death of a martyred fellow into the fold of Catholic veneration. From this perspective, the forensic anthropologist does not simply repatriate remains to grateful survivors but in some ways becomes a footnote incorporated into how groups create and recreate their identity in a fashion similar to that experienced by anthropologists in other subfields (see Monaghan 1995). In this case, a man whose head was severed and displayed as a trophy may (p.195) now have special, spiritual status conferred upon him (see O'Donnabhain this volume for an inverse transformation).

The collection and dissemination of descriptive data relevant to population affinity assessment would allow future researchers to contribute even more, as only forensic anthropologists can, to critical questions of identity and heritage. At the same time, it would advance public discourse, moving away from race-based approaches to a more regional and contextualized understanding of human biological variation.

Appendix: Provenience Information for Table 7.1

Seventeenth-century Euro-American: Carter's Grove, Flowerdew Hundred, Gloucester Point, Martins Hundred, Shenandoah County (Va.), Patuxent Point, Site PG3.

Eighteenth-century Euro-American: Gloucester Point, Rae Burial Ground, St. Anne's Church, Moran Gallery, Fort King George, Stratford (Va.), plus miscellaneous proveniences from the J. L. Angel archives.

Nineteenth-century Euro-American: St. Marks cemetery, plus miscellaneous proveniences from the J. L. Angel archives.

Eighteenth-century African-American: Catoctin Furnace, College Landing, Deep River, First African Baptist Church, plus miscellaneous proveniences from the J. L. Angel archives.

Nineteenth-century African-American: Oakland Cemetery, First African Baptist Church, Governor's Bridge, Ocean City, Cunningham Mound D, un-marked slave cemetery in Washington (D.C.), Cedar Grove, Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, plus miscellaneous proveniences from the J. L. Angel archives.

Modern American: Miscellaneous proveniences from the J. L. Angel archives, approximately 171 FBI case files from around the United States.

West African: Agande; Agane; Aksim, Gold Coast; Ashanti; Babula; Babwe; Bakongo; Balisi; Baluba; Bangala; Bangelima; Bapoto; Bashongo; Basoko, Congo Free State; Batanga; Boki; Bushongo—Congo Free State; Calabar; Cameroon; Coffin Island, River Cess, Liberia; Congo; Creektown, Calabar; Dagomba; Djago—Gold Coast; Dogon; Efek; Ekoi—Nigeria; Ewe-Mishohe—Togo; Fan—Ogave River; Freetown, Sierra Leone; French Congo (Fernand (p.196) Vaz); Gabon; Gaboon (Fernand Vaz [1864 Series]); Gaboon (Fernand Vaz [1880 Series]); Gambe; Ghana; Guaja—French Guinea; Ibi, Benue River, Nigeria; Ibibio; Ibo; Kabila; Kamerun; Korawp; Kumabembe; Likwangulo; Mabea; Mandingo; Momou; Mongala; Mongwi; Nambetu; Nanga; Niger Delta; Oban—British Nigeria; Republic of Congo; Salago—Volta River, Gold Coast; Sango—Congo Free State; Senegal; Topoke; Vai—Liberia; West Bassai—Togo; Yendi—Togo.

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