13 November 1998

No bones left unturned in quest for Pandora skeletons' identity

A University of Queensland student's extraction of DNA from human bones submerged in the sea for more than 200 years is believed to be a world-first.

Anatomical Sciences Department honours student Dayman Steptoe has painstakingly reconstructed three skeletons from more than 200 bones and bone fragments recovered by Queensland Museum archaeologists from the HMS Pandora wreck 120kms east of Cape York.

The DNA extraction greatly advances forensic knowledge and techniques for the treatment and analysis of bones submerged in tropical marine environments.

The next stage of the project will involve identifying the three skeletons. Further funding is required to enable the extracted DNA to be compared with blood samples from living descendants of the 35 Pandora crew known to have drowned during the sinking.

The DNA extraction was done at the Forensic Biology section of the John Tonge Centre. It is thought to be the first recovery of genetic material from human bones submerged in sea-water for such a long period.

Using techniques from the particular branch of forensic science known as forensic osteology, Mr Steptoe also checked the bones for markers identifying age, sex, race and height.

It is known - from the Pandora's surgeon - that two of the crew were accidentally killed when the ship hit a reef, one by a falling mast and a second by a cannon sliding across the deck.

These two would have been taken below decks but historical records do not reveal their names. The third skeleton's identity is an even greater mystery.

From the skeletal remains, Mr Steptoe has established many interesting facts about the men as well as the time in which they lived. He has estimated their ages at approximately 17, 22 and 28 as well as their heights at around 168cm, 165cm and 166cm respectively.

"Two of the men were probably smokers and/or tea-drinkers due to their stained teeth, one of the three had developed spina bifida early in life, another had rickets, and the third likely suffered from syphilis. All had poor dental hygiene," Mr Steptoe said.

Using a modified technique, Dentistry School researcher Dr Alex Forrest and Mr Steptoe have used state-of-the-art computer techniques, rather than clay modelling, to reconstruct the face of one of the skulls.
Mr Steptoe's studies, supervised by Department senior lecturer Dr Walter Wood, provide further historical data on what is arguably the southern hemisphere's most significant shipwreck because of its large collection of well-preserved artefacts.

"Much of Pandora's finer detail is really just coming to light. Queensland Museum archaeologists have been excavating since 1983 and we are learning so much all the time," Mr Steptoe said.

"Excavation will continue until 2001 but before then the Museum will open a new branch dedicated to the Pandora in Townsville. Funds for this project have been made available by the Townsville-based Pandora Foundation and the Queensland Government.
"From an archaeological point of view, the Pandora really is a time capsule of an 18th century British ship."

HMS Pandora is best known as the frigate the British Admiralty sent to the South Pacific to search for and capture the Bounty and bring to justice the mutineers who had seized the vessel and cast adrift Captain William Bligh with 18 loyal crew.

Fourteen mutineers had surrendered or were rounded up when the Pandora dropped anchor off Tahiti. Another two had already been killed.

The mutineers were placed in a makeshift wooden cell constructed on Pandora's deck which was subsequently named "Pandora's Box". Its area was just 3.3m x 5.4m and 1.5m high.

After a fruitless three-month search for the remaining nine mutineers, the captain of the Pandora, Edward Edwards, decided to return to England in August 1791.
On the return leg to Timor via the Torres Strait, the ship struck a reef and, despite desperate efforts by the crew, sank the following morning.

While it was the end of the Pandora, for Mr Steptoe it marks the beginning of the remaining chapters of Pandora's story.

The wreck was discovered in 1977, lying in 33m of water. Since that time the Pandora has produced an exciting variety of artefacts including dinner sets, bottles and even a silver and gold fob watch.

Media contact: Mr Steptoe (telephone 0414 763599 or 07 3371 3618 or email steppie@scientist.com) or Mr Forrest (telephone 07 3830 5434) or Queensland Museum Maritime Archaeology curator Peter Gesner (telephone 07 3840 7673).