Scientists have confirmed a long-held theory by residents of Gaspé, Quebec, that the human remains of 21 people, unearthed over a five-year period, came from an 1847 Carricks shipwreck.
The ship left Sligo, Ireland, carrying 180 passengers fleeing the Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger. It sank off Cap-des-Rosiers in Gaspésie, killing up to 150 people.
The bones of three children washed up on shore in 2011 after a violent storm, and the remains of another 18 people were unearthed in 2016 before the beach was restored.
The remains were sent to Parks Canada offices in Ottawa and then to researchers at the University of Montreal for analysis.
“It’s kind of the end of the story for people who were interested in it,” said Mathieu Côté, resource conservation manager at Forillon National Park.
“We were suspicious of the place [the remains] were coming from, and we had a good idea where they were from, but now we have proof that these people were from Ireland.”
Côté started with Parks Canada about a year before the discovery of the first remains. He called the past eight years a “great project” that brought to light an important part of Canada’s history.
“They were old bones and they were very fragile,” Côté said, adding that 160 years of exposure to salt water had made their condition worse.
Determine scheme key for confirmation
Scientists used bone samples to determine their chemical composition and identify their origins.
“We did our best because the remains were very fragmentary,” said Isabelle Ribot, associate professor of bioarchaeology at the University of Montreal, who participated in the analysis.
“They were extremely fragile,” she said. “As soon as you touched them, they started to crumble.”
Analysis showed that the bones belonged to people whose diet was characteristic of a rural population dependent on agriculture – especially potatoes – as was typical of the Irish population at the time.
“Our skeletons reflect what we eat,” Ribot said, explaining that scientists are able to determine whether a person had a diet high in protein or vegetables based on their bones.
She said chronic health issues like malnutrition are also evident in the bones.
Remains found at Cap-des-Rosiers showed that the castaways had a low-protein diet and were under nutritional stress, possibly caused by the famine in Ireland.
Most of the bones belonged to women and children.
“Knowing the context and knowing that there are descendants of the people who survived, it’s very moving and very sensitive,” Ribot said. “We are very lucky to have been able to analyze them and extract as much information as possible.”
Ribot said she would have liked to do ancient DNA analysis on the bones, but that was impossible due to their condition.
Archaeologists were also only able to collect about 1% of some skeletons.
“They probably literally melted because of the conservation context,” Ribot said.
Locals think the beach is a graveyard
Côté said the discovery is consistent with the oral history of the area – that there is a mass grave of shipwreck victims on the beach.
“We didn’t know if there was one, but that’s what locals were saying,” he said.
Most of the survivors of the wreck continued on to Quebec and Montreal, but some remained in the area.
“The tragic events of the sinking of the Carricks remind us of how difficult the journey has been for travelers and that not everyone has had the chance to reach their new home,” said Diane Lebouthillier, MP for Gaspésie–Les Îles-de-la -Madeleine, in a press release.
‘Today’s announcement is very important to Irish families whose ancestors were Carricks passengers,’ she said. “This shipwreck reflects an important part of Canadian history.”
The remains will be transported to Forillon National Park in the coming weeks and a funeral service will be held.
They will be buried near the Irish Memorial on Cap-des-Rosiers beach, erected in 1990 in memory of those who died after the sinking.
Forty-eight people survived the sinking and 87 bodies were recovered of the estimated 120–150 dead.