By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Nov. 25) - Researchers from a French expedition currently on the Solomon Islands' Vanikoro Island claim they have made a major discovery - a human skeleton that could be one of the 200 men aboard French vessels La Boussole and l'Astrolabe, which sank there in February 1788, RFO's Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie reports.

The human remains were found some thirteen meters deep, in an underwater trench just off Vanikoro.

It is the biggest discovery of what remains of French explorer François de la Pérouse’s expedition to the South Pacific some 215 years ago.

Both ships presumably sank in the area, in circumstances that mostly remain a mystery.

Earlier expeditions from the New Caledonia-based French scientists and local associations' members have already retrieved objects from the wreck, such as crockery, cutlery and everyday life items.

They have also researched on shore, in villages where they believed the marooned survivors would have established a so-called "Frenchmen's Camp" (Camp des Français).

Studies there have already found traces of the seamen's passage remained in oral history.

The human skeleton is said to be in a very good condition, probably due to the fact that sand, coral and sediments that grew on it had formed a kind of natural sarcophagus.

Etienne Beaumont, a French coroner who is part of the expedition, has examined the remains and based on the teeth's condition, is estimating this was a man of "around forty years of age" who could have gotten trapped inside the ship when it sank and later became entangled in wood and material debris.

The body is also said to be in a good enough condition to hold organs remains, Nouméa-based Solomon association member Raymond Proner told Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie.

"From day one, we had a hunch we were bound to find something pretty interesting in this area", he said.

The remains have now been brought back to the surface, onboard French research institute IRD'' vessel, the "Alis".

They are expected to be brought back to New Caledonia, then onto metropolitan France for further examination.

The current expedition left New Caledonia last month.

It involves privatel vessels from the two local associations "La Pérouse" and "Fortunes de Mer" (Sea Fortunes), but also support from the New Caledonia-based French navy, which has provided frigates for transportation purposes.

Expedition officials, including one archaeologist from the French Research Institute IRD, and association President Alain Conan, said last month they had obtained clearance from the Solomon Islands authorities to engage in their search.

November 26, 2003

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