Skull fragment found in Lake Pontchartrain identified as prehistoric indigenous remains

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Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 12:04 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A skull fragment found in or around Lake Pontchartrain in 1985 has been identified as prehistoric indigenous remains, according to the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office.

The decedent was identified as a female aged between 25-35 years old, but her origin remained unknown. DNA analysis in 2009 was unsuccessful in developing a full profile, and the case remained unsolved until recently.

In January, a photocopy of a single page of an inventory sheet from LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) lab from the 1980s was found, listing the female skull as “unidentified, parish of discovery unknown.” St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston assumed jurisdiction and assigned it to Cold Case Investigator Chris Knoblauch.

Carbon-14 testing was conducted to determine the artifact’s age and to investigate its context in a current forensic or criminal case. Samples were sent to Beta Analytics in Florida, and the results revealed that the bone dates back between 1634-1504 BC, making it approximately 3,500 years old. This age is consistent with the Late Archaic Period in Louisiana and suggests that the decedent was a contemporary of the Poverty Point Culture. The bone is therefore designated as prehistoric remains of an indigenous person.

According to 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).

Dr. Preston’s staff met with local Native American and other community leaders at the Bayou Lacombe Museum two weeks ago 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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