The skeletal bones were found about 500 yards inland from Shoals Point, on Kruzof Island, where many things drift, blow, or are otherwise carried ashore from the open Pacific. Officials are now looking for a DNA match in the FBI’s CODIS database. (Shorezone image/NOAA)

Human skeletal remains found on Kruzof Island near Sitka in April of 2020 are modern, but not especially recent.  A DNA sample will be compared to a national database of missing persons, and could shed light on who the individual was, and how they came to an end in the woods behind Shoals Point.

According to Sitka police, the individual was between the ages of 30 and 50 years old at the time of death, and likely of Native American, Latinx, or other Asian derivative. And while it’s not a lot to go on, that we know this much at all is the result of work by a special field of investigation called forensic anthropology.

“Those are really the three main things we do: Who might it be? What happened to them? And can we positively associate those remains with a missing person?” explains Mark Ingraham.

There are roughly 200 forensic anthropologists in the US, and Mark Ingraham is one of them. He’s the associate director of the Forensic Anthropology Unit of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. 

What we know about the Kruzof skeleton, from the UNTCHI Forensic Anthropology Unit:

  • Biological profile of likely 30 to 50 year-old decedent of Asian or Asian-derived
  • (“Amerindian/Native American,” “Hispanic/Latino/Latinx,” etc.) ancestry; sex and stature are indeterminate.
  • Other descriptive features: possible remote fracture involving the right nasal bone and
  • maxillary frontal process, pathological changes involving the left mandibular ascending ramus.
  • No perimortem skeletal trauma observed on the submitted remains.

The Kruzof bones were sent to the Forensic Anthropology Unit by the Alaska Medical Examiner because they are “legally or medically significant.” In other words, the skeleton wasn’t from a cultural site or historic grave.

“Does something that’s 500 years old look different from something that’s ten? Absolutely,” said Ingraham. “Yeah, these aren’t ancient remains.”

And neither are they from World War II, when the Shoals Point area where they were found was a large, military encampment.

Ingraham is one of three investigators at the lab. Although the Kruzof bones were investigated by a colleague, the team peer reviews each other’s work. He says movies and television have misled people about how much forensic anthropology alone can accomplish. The lab can’t determine how tall this person was from the submitted bones, or their sex. There aren’t any signs of injury. Unraveling this mystery will require going to the next level.

“You know it’s very hard to determine what happened, if there’s no indication of trauma — or even if there is an indication of trauma — if you don’t have a name,” said Ingraham. “Without a name you can’t find out who they were with, what they were doing, what was going on with that individual 10 years ago, 15 years ago.”

The lab has sent samples of the Kruzof skeleton next door, so to speak, to the Center for Human Identification’s Missing Persons DNA Unit, where they will be matched to a nationwide DNA database maintained by the FBI. The database, called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), has DNA profiles collected from many sources — from unidentified remains like these, from evidence gathered by law enforcement, and most importantly, from the family of missing persons.

“If there are any individuals in the community, or any community, that have missing relatives, any law enforcement agency can collect reference samples for the Missing Persons DNA Database,” Ingraham said. “Remains can only be identified if there’s something to match to.” 

Ingraham says the Missing Persons Unit has connected family members to remains from as long ago as the 1950s. More recently, in 2015, investigators identified a human leg bone recovered in a trawl net in the Bering Sea. It belonged to one of the crew members lost in the sinking of the Arctic Rose 14 years earlier. The crew member’s mother had submitted a DNA reference sample to the FBI shortly after the loss of the Arctic Rose.

As for the Kruzof bones? Ingraham says there is a backlog at the US labs that can sequence mitochondrial DNA, but this individual’s profile should be in the database soon — and only then will we have a chance to learn who they were.