Cataloging an Early American: A Question of Ancestry
Written by Laura Reimer, Scott Tardiff, Jordyn Valoroso, Robert Whiting, Heather Miller Coyle   

A SKELETON WAS UNCOVERED during construction of a chimney in the town of Guilford, Connecticut in 1952 by the late Stanley Barnes (Figure 1). Based on personal communication, the human remains were found in a fetal position on a bed of shells, and the land owner believed the skeleton to be a Native American. After examination, two main issues seemed to be at odds with this conclusion. The first was the condition of the teeth. Normally, Native Americans are known to have good dental hygiene due to a non-sugary diet (Smith, 1984), but this individual’s oral cavity was in poor condition with obvious cavities in multiple teeth. The second issue was no associated artifacts or clothing were recovered from the burial site. However, due to the friable condition of the bones it is believed that the skeleton was extremely old and potentially Native American or early Colonial, and personal effects may have deteriorated at the burial site even if originally present. In this study, it was confirmed that the skeleton was female, and was likely young (aged 12-25 years) because of the undeveloped wisdom teeth.

Figure 1—Aerial view of location of recovery circa 1934.

To address the concern that this could be a missing person from the 1950s, a records search was performed for owners of the property and for local missing person’s reports. The oldest recorded missing person in the local Connecticut database was from an abduction in 1938. The bones were not from the mid-1900s, based on local archeology/anthropology. Representative samples were sent to the University of North Texas (UNT) Center for Human Identification to confirm by an independent agency that they were archeological in nature (Coyle, 2013).

Once the remains were certified as ancient, examination was initiated by the research team. When the team first surveyed the remains, they appeared to be of a relatively complete skeleton that was covered in shellac with segments of bones that had been wired or puttied together (Figures 2 & 3). Along with the human remains, there was also written background information on the recovery of the individual’s skeleton from the land owner.

Figure 2—Facial bones.

Figure 3—Mandible.

The circumstances around the unknown remains found in the 1950s is different than if the same remains were found today. On original discovery, the local police were notified but the remains were determined to be ancient and were considered to be “old Indian”. These types of remains are commonly recovered during construction in the coastal town of Guilford. Today, because of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), any remains found that belong to lineal Native American descendants, or the tribe on whose land the remains were found, are to be turned over to the tribe for repatriation. This law was enacted in 1990 and the skeletal remains in this study pre-dated legislation. On request by the owner, the skeleton was to be examined to attempt to verify ancestry. Then, the tribal councils in Connecticut were notified by the state archeologist that Native American ancestry might be a possibility, but proof or authentication was required.


For investigation into the ancestry of ancient remains, one of the most useful pieces of information can be derived from dentistry. Studies have shown that dental traits can be linked to genetic ancestry. These traits include tooth size and morphology. While some of the morphologies can be caused by environmental influences, these influences correlate to different cultures which in turn can be predictors of ancestry (Scott, 1988). Other studies have investigated how certain diets can influence wear patterns on teeth during life. These studies showed that hunter-gatherer diets differ from agriculturist diets enough to change tooth wear patterns over time (Smith, 1984 & Kaidonis, 2008). One study considered both the food types and the food preparation and how these factors contribute to the wear pattern on the molars. The samples used for the study were all available in research or museum collections in the United States or Europe. The amount of molar wear was measured by the angle of the lingual to buccal plane of the tooth. The study showed that the angles are higher for agriculturalists than for hunter-gatherers when comparing the same level of wear. There was also cupping present in the agriculturalists, which is an indication of fine particles in food. Besides tooth wear, this study indicated that hunter-gatherer cultures had almost no dental caries, whereas the agriculturalist cultures had a large amount of caries. While this study provides useful information about the difference between hunter-gatherer cultures and agriculturist cultures, the sample size was not big enough to allow for significant differentiation between types of meats or types of grains. This information on tooth morphologies, however, may be useful in determining whether an unknown sample is from a hunter-gatherer society or an agriculturist society as an aid in identification of ancestry (Smith, 1984).

These types of studies can be further supported by examining the difference between Neanderthal diets and Homo sapiens diets. As the study by Fiorenza et al (2011) found, there was little difference between the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens wear patterns, indicating that there was not much difference in their diets. Also, during periods of warmer climates, the Neanderthals showed a wear pattern that was consistent with a diet that included a variety of foods, not just meat. Many Neanderthal populations had diverse diets that included different types of plants and animals. This study contradicted popular belief that Neanderthals only ate meat. This study was able to show that wear patterns of teeth can help determine diet, which may be useful when attempting to determine age/ancestry of an unknown sample (Florenza et al, 2011). All of these studies show the importance of dental study when determining ancestry from unknown human remains.

The results of the dental examination showed that this study’s subject from the 1950s had very poor oral health, including many cavities and some severe abscesses. The most significant cavity is on the mandibular right first molar. The cavity in this tooth is severe and caused the decay of the inside of the tooth. There are also two major abscesses that caused severe damage to not only the teeth but to the mandible as well. The most severe area is the mandibular left first molar. This tooth is completely decayed; all that is left is the outline on the lingual side of the tooth. The abscess continues below the tooth into the mandible, creating a large area of decay into the bone. Just above this tooth, in the area of the maxillary left first premolar, there is another abscess. This tooth is also almost completely decayed; only the roots remain. There is a small abscess above this tooth that extends into the left maxillary bone. These corresponding abscesses show a great deal of decay, which would indicate that there was a severe infection in this area. This indicates that the diet of this individual was very different from what is traditionally thought to be a non-sugary Native American diet.

Besides the decay to the teeth, there is also a significant amount of wear on the teeth, in particular the mandibular incisors and canines. The canines were so worn down that they could only be recognized as canines by their placement in the mandible, and the dentine was visible. Unfortunately, because of this extreme wear it was not possible to determine if the incisors were shovel shaped or not, a common feature of Native American or Asian ancestry. The dental inventory is presented in Tables 1 & 2. Representative dental radiographs and digital images of the dentistry are presented in Figure 4a-d.

Table 1. Dental Inventory of Maxillary Teeth

Tooth Number and Name Present or Missing Extra Information
#1: maxillary right 3rd molar Missing Unable to determine whether loss was ante, post, or perimortem
#2: maxillary right 2nd molar Present None
#3: maxillary right 1st molar Present Pulp stone and calcification in tooth, wear line present
#4: maxillary right 2nd premolar Present None
#5: maxillary right 1st premolar Missing Lost antemortem
#6: maxillary right canine Missing Tooth #11 was found in this tooth’s position. Tooth #6 was lost postmortem
#7: maxillary right lateral incisor Missing Lost antemortem
#8: maxillary right central incisor Missing Lost antemortem
#9: maxillary left central incisor Present Severe attrition
#10: maxillary left lateral incisor Present None
#11: maxillary left canine Present Severe attrition, was placed in the wrong spot upon reconstruction (was in #6 spot)
#12: maxillary left 1st premolar Present Not much tooth left, retained roots
#13: maxillary left 2nd premolar Present None
#14: maxillary left 1st molar Present Pulp stone and calcification in tooth, wear line present
#15: maxillary left 2nd molar Present None
#16: maxillary left 3rd molar Missing Lost postmortem

Table 2. Dental Inventory of Mandibular Teeth

Tooth Number and Name Present or Missing Extra Information
#17: mandibular left 3rd molar Missing Unable to determine whether loss was ante, post, or perimortem
#18: mandibular left 2nd molar Present Occlusal fracture and/or decay
#19: mandibular left 1st molar Present Evidence of bone resorption and severe fracture and/or decay
#20: mandibular left 2nd premolar Present None
#21: mandibular left 1st premolar Present None
#22: mandibular left canine Present Moderate attrition
#23: mandibular left lateral incisor Present Moderate attrition
#24: mandibular left central incisor Missing Lost postmortem
#25: mandibular right central incisor Present None
#26: mandibular right lateral incisor Present None
#27: mandibular right canine Present Attrition
#28: mandibular right 1st premolar Present None
#29: mandibular right 2nd premolar Present None
#30: mandibular right 1st molar Present Severely decayed and/or fractured with periapical pathology
#31: mandibular right 2nd molar Present None
#32: mandibular right 3rd molar Present Partially impacted with incomplete root formation

Figure 4(a-d)—Samples of dentistry observed in the Guilford case study. Incomplete teeth (a) (c) either due to decay or environmental degradation are evident. Tooth enamel is worn to an even edge on front teeth (b). Wisdom teeth show incomplete eruption and are an indicator of age (d).

Skeletal Inventory

From the inventory, this skeleton would be classified as a partial. The missing bones were as follows: the parietal bones, the occipital bone, the temporal bones, the left nasal bones, the lacrimal bones, the palatine bones, the sphenoid bone, the ethmoid bones, the vomer bone, the hyoid bone, the cervical vertebra, the coccyx, the sternum, the left scapula, the right patella, all bones of the wrists, hands, ankles, and feet. Also missing was the proximal epiphysis of both the left and right humerus, the distal epiphysis of the right ulna, the distal epiphysis of the right femur, the proximal epiphysis of the right tibia, and the proximal and distal epiphyses of the right fibula. From our study, we must conclude that these missing bones either decomposed over time or were not fully recovered during the initial excavation and discovery.


Since the pelvis was too damaged to take any accurate measurements, the nonmetric traits of the pelvis were important in determining the sex of the individual. The shape of the bones in the pelvic inlet of this subject created an elliptical shape, indicating that the individual was female. Another indication of the subject being female is the sciatic notch test, which shows that there is a large angle in the sciatic notch. Along with the os coxae shape, the sacrum shape can also indicate sex. The sacrum of this individual is less rounded than a male sacrum would be, indicating again that the subject was female. There are two other indications that this subject was female. The first is the foramen on the distal end of the humerus. This hole is known as the septal aperture and is mostly found in women (Ortner, 2003). Another area that can indicate sex is the orbital region. Because the subject has a sharp angle in the orbital, this indicates a female.


From the examinations that were performed, it was determined that the subject was a female between the ages of 14 and 25 with unknown ancestry. There were a few different areas of the remains that provided some information on the age at death. The first was the pelvic bones. Because the bones were already fused, it is likely that the subject was over the age of 14, as this is the age at which fusion is usually complete (Bass, 2005). Another indicator of age is the stage of development of the third molar, or wisdom teeth. The one third molar that was present was not fully developed or erupted, indicating age 15-25. The dental radiographs showed that the roots had not begun to develop completely yet.


One important aspect of determining ancestry of unknown remains is understanding the populations that lived in the area. The importance of understanding populations is illustrated in the study by Perez et al (2009). This study investigated the difference in theories of peopling in South America. Previous data shows that cranial examinations give different information than mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies. These differences have resulted in two different theories of migration: one saying there was a single migration, and the other stating two separate migrations of two different sets of people. This article studied these two theories using data from east-central Argentina that included both craniometric and molecular DNA data. The examination of this data showed that there was no correlation between the morphological differences and the mtDNA differences. One possible hypothesis to explain this difference is genetic drift in later populations. Another hypothesis is that one population essentially “invaded” the other and the “invading” genes dominated the gene pool, causing the first population to eventually die out.

This study is useful because it brings to light the possibility of more diverse ancient populations than was previously determined. Given the history of Guilford, Connecticut, Native American ancestry is not unusual as it is coastal and well-researched for early populations. Guilford was first settled in 1639 by Europeans after purchase of the land from a Native American leader, Wequash or Weekwosh. Very little is known of the indigenous Native American population other than they were called Menunkatuck, the Indian word for Guilford. Although the land was purchased in 1639, Native American presence in the area was documented until approximately 1740.

In an archeological case such as this one, the teeth can be a very important clue into the diet and daily life of the individual. For this subject, the teeth play a role in calling the ancestry of the remains into question. Many studies have shown that because of their hunter-gatherer diets, Native Americans generally had good oral health (Kaidonis, 2008). Because they didn’t have many sugar-based foods in their diets, cavities were rare in their society. Given this information (as discussed above), the dental health of this sample raises some question of ancestry.

Although a great deal of analysis was performed in this study, the inventories, dental health, sex, and age are the only data that can be stated at this time and it was a valuable exercise in anthropology. There are pieces of evidence that point to both Native American ancestry and also potentially European ancestry. The poor health of the teeth could point toward someone who is eating a more processed diet, which would be someone of European ancestry, or someone who is living in contact with those of European ancestry. However, the abundance of oyster and clam fisheries in the area during early settlement (1600-1700s) may have contributed to the unusual dentistry and would explain a poor fit to the traditional hunter-gatherer expectation of low sugar diet. Without more investigation, these possibilities cannot be distinguished.

There were many problems that occurred in the examination of this skeleton, including the obstruction of some surface bone features by the shellac that was added by the owner to protect the skeleton from further deterioration. Because of the shellac, it was hard to be certain of any possible pathology on the bone surface. This makes it difficult to determine cause of death, since there are no obvious signs except perhaps sepsis due to poor oral health. The partial skeleton, the condition of the skeleton, and the conflicting dentistry in our case proves to be difficult in terms of defining ancestry. Our individual may have been a Native American living on an early colonial diet, on a soft shellfish diet, or may have had teeth filed as part of tribal warfare or for marking of captive slaves, or from habitual wear from some type of work or industry in the early colonial time period. Alternatively, a similar but reverse argument could be made for our skeleton being an early Colonist. Therefore, our question of ancestry ends as an open-ended question.

Our study requirements were that all of our tests be performed with experts on dentition and anthropology and archeology, and that the tests on the skeletal remains be non-destructive in nature (i.e. observational). If it had been allowed, destructive testing of bone or dental pulp may have been able to yield some insight by DNA, but even those types of tests can yield ambiguous results. Some anthropological measurements that will not be able to be completed because of the condition of the bones include ancestry analysis based on features of the skull, as the back of the skull was not present. Another analysis that could not be performed was mitochondrial DNA testing due to the lack of hair samples.

What happens to the skeletal remains after all analysis is complete depends on the ancestry of the individual. Since the ancestry of this subject has yet to be determined, the sample was returned to the donor after the catalogue of skeletal remains and dental radiographs were performed. Although ancestry could not be verified via anthropology and dentistry, the individual was catalogued and is likely an early European or indigenous Native American to Guilford, Connecticut. This was a positive learning experience and highly collaborative effort between University of New Haven students and Connecticut State professionals.


This analytical process was started as a research investigation into a skeleton donated to the University of New Haven (UNH) for temporary examination. The examinations were performed with Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, Ph.D., Connecticut State Archeologist, University of Connecticut; and Dr. Gary Aronsen, Ph.D., Research Associate, Yale University. An inventory of the dentistry was performed, and the teeth were analyzed by Dr. Richard Diotalevi, DMD, Adjunct Instructor, Dental Hygiene Program, University of New Haven; and Sandra D’Amato-Palumbo, RDH, MPS, Associate Professor, Dental Hygiene Program, University of New Haven. Thank you to all of the above for their generous time and expertise in this study. Thank you also to the Henry C. Lee Institute for the loan of their equipment and laboratory space for this study. Thank you to our donor, Stanley Barnes, for loaning our students access to his private collection.

About the Authors

Laura Reimer, Scott Tardiff, and Jordyn Valoroso are recent Bachelor of Science graduates from the undergraduate forensic science program at University of New Haven. This study represents a portion of the work submitted by Laura Reimer for the fulfillment of a thesis for the Honor’s program. All three successful graduates are interested in careers in biology and anthropology, and worked with a trained anthropologist and archeologist to complete this study for course credit and for University community service to a Connecticut resident.

Heather Miller Coyle is an Associate Professor at University of New Haven in the Forensic Science Department. She earned her Ph.D. from University of New Hampshire in 1994 and has teaching and research experience in DNA and biology. Her recent scientific publications include research on touch DNA, DNA mixture analysis, and probabilistic genotyping for forensic purposes. She served as the point of contact for the Connecticut resident and provided oversight for the students during the imaging and cataloguing process.


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Fiorenza, L., S. Benazzi, J. Tausch, O. Kullmer, T. G. Bromage, F. Schrenk. “Molar Macrowear Reveals Neanderthal Eco-Geographic Dietary Variation,” PLoS One [Internet] (2011). Retrieved from: Available from:

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Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [Internet]. (1990) Retrieved from:

Ortner D. J. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains (2nd Ed.). Academic Press, Cambridge, MA (2003).

Perez S. I., V. Bernal, P. N. Gonzalez, M. Sardi, G. G. Politis. “Discrepancy Between Cranial and DNA Data of Early Americans: Implications for American Peopling,” PLoS One [Internet] (2009). Retrieved from:

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Smith, B. H., “Patterns of Molar Wear in Hunter-Gatherers and Agriculturalists,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 56:39-56 (1984).

This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
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