Skeletons to reveal Batavia mysteries

New insights: Associate Professor Daniel Franklin with skulls from the Batavia. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

Two more 400-year-old skeletons of Batavia mutiny victims - discovered in the final minutes of this month's scientific expedition to tiny Beacon Island, 80km off Geraldton - could help solve mysteries surrounding the bloodiest chapter of WA's maritime history.

An early examination of the skeletons - believed to be a man and a woman aged between 20 and 34 - show no signs of trauma or any indication of what caused their deaths.

But they have already provided some interesting insights into the life and time of sailors on Dutch East India Company ships in the 1600s. For example, abscesses on one of the skeletons indicate poor dental hygiene.

When _The Weekend West _ joined the expedition three weeks ago, the skull and skeleton of an adolescent was uncovered as part of the joint project involving WA Museum and University of WA.

But a few days later - and as the expedition was close to packing up to leave the island - the two new skeletons were found close to the original discovery.

Associate Professor Daniel Franklin, from the University of WA's Centre for Forensic Science, said 13 skeletons had been retrieved from Beacon Island since the first find in 1960.

He said scientists would now conduct sophisticated tests on the skeletons, including isotopic analysis, medical imaging and three-dimensional virtual reconstructions.

"It is possible to determine quite a lot of information from the skeletons, and particularly their skulls, about each individual, their diets and the way they lived," Professor Franklin said.

"And, of course, we also hope it will shed some light on the circumstances of the Batavia mutiny and associated killings."

The Batavia, a Dutch East India Company ship, was wrecked on Morning Reef near Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos in 1629.

Of about 341 people aboard, most made it to nearby islands but more than 120 - including women and children - were brutally killed during a mutiny among the survivors.

Research associate Ambika Flavel said previous attempts to get DNA profiles from the uncovered skeletons had proved difficult because of degradation of genetic material.

The expedition also recovered the skeleton of a skull discovered in 1964.

The skeleton had been under concrete foundations of a fishing hut. But removing the hut in July allowed access to the bones.

"The skull was missing a piece -- clearly the victim had suffered significant trauma to the head, perhaps with a cutlass or similar weapon," Professor Franklin said. " And, in retrieving the skeleton, we managed to find a missing piece of the skull. It fits perfectly."

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