A press release by St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston details what happened following the discovery of a skull fragment in or around Lake Pontchartrain in 1985. His report is below.
“When someone discovered a skull fragment somewhere in or around Lake Pontchartrain in 1985, he or she turned it over to … well … honestly, nobody knows. Ultimately it was placed in the custody of the State Archaeologist, who submitted it to the LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) lab in Baton Rouge. Initial anthropologic analysis revealed the decedent was a female and 25-35 at the time of death, but the science of the time gave little to go on. DNA analysis was attempted by the North Louisiana Criminalistics lab, but was unsuccessful in development of a full profile.
Fast forward to 2009, when the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office DNA lab tested the relic again. Unfortunately, the sample’s DNA had degraded to the point that only a partial profile was developed, insufficient for entry into the nationwide database. The source was confirmed to be a female, but the mystery continued.
In January, during investigation of another case involving identification of skeletal remains discovered, a photocopy of a single page of an inventory sheet from FACES lab from the1980s was found, listing the female skull as “unidentified, parish of discovery unknown.”
Because the origin of the relic had never been known, no Coroner’s Office had ever investigated before. St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston assumed jurisdiction and assigned it to Cold Case Investigator Chris Knoblauch. Since the age of the artifact was unknown, and to determine if it warranted investigation in a current forensic or criminal context, Carbon-14 testing was the next step, and samples were sent to Beta Analytics in Florida.
The results were astonishing.
Last month, investigators received the results of the testing which dated the bone between 1634-1504 BC, making it approximately 3,500 years old. This age is consistent with the Late Archaic Period in Louisiana and suggests the decedent was a contemporary of the Poverty Point Culture. The bone is therefore designated as prehistoric remains of an indigenous person.
In accordance with state law, once the remains were determined to be over 50 years old and to have no contemporary forensic context, Preston released jurisdiction over the remains to the Secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s Division of Archaeology. The specimen has always been and will remain curated at the LSU FACES lab under the protection of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Two weeks ago, Coroner’s Office staff met with local Native American and other community leaders at the Bayou Lacombe Museum to brief them on the circumstances of the find. STPCO has also informed the Louisiana Intertribal Council, and the leaders of both the Jena Band of the Choctaw Nation and the United Houma Nation regarding the significance of this find.
“I often say that no Coroner’s case is ever closed”, Preston said. “It took a while as science progressed, but we have been able to identify the historical origin of this woman to the extent possible, and have taken steps to properly honor her life. I’m grateful for the work of our DNA Lab and Investigations staff, the Beta Analytics lab, Native American Community leaders, state authorities. I reiterate that we will never give up on any case. We hope to participate in the repatriation ceremony which may be held in the future.”
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