The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Identification of historic individuals: the unknown sailor from the HMAS Sydney II


1Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, 2Discipline of Anatomy and Histology, The University of Sydney

Thursday All day, Plaza Level Add to calendar

The ability of physical anthropologists to identify historic individuals through a range of analytical techniques has assisted investigations and engaged the public in our discipline. Stable isotope analysis of a range of elements along with osteological, dental, historical and DNA evidence have all been carried out in an attempt to identify an unknown sailor from the 1940s. On November 19, 1941, the naval vessel, HMAS Sydney II sank off the western coast of Australia following a battle with a German ship. The loss of all 645 crew members of the HMAS Sydney II was the largest single naval loss in Australian military history. In February of 1942, an unidentified dead sailor was recovered from a life raft near Christmas Island, where he was buried following a post mortem examination. As the only potential link with the HMAS Sydney II, there has been tremendous public interest in the identification of this individual, who was exhumed in 2006. Osteological analysis indicates that the individual was a young male of European ancestry who suffered a shrapnel wound to the head. Isotopic analyses were carried out on a rib fragment and one tooth. Results for carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes are consistent in identifying a diet very high in marine foods and oxygen isotopes indicate a place of residence in the tropics. These analyses highlight both the potential and the limitations of the various analytical methods employed. While the exact identification remains uncertain, the range of possibilities has been reduced considerably.

This research was supported by the Royal Australian Navy.

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