There have been some bizarre things done in the name of science. Perhaps grave robbing is one of the least weird, but the circumstances around the case of Chief Comcomly's Skull are noteworthy enough, I think, to warrent mention.
Chief Comcomly was a principle leader of one of the Chinnook Indian tribes of the American Northwest Coast, where the states of Washington and Oregon are today. He was friendly to the white explorers who came to his area and met the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was on good terms with both the American and the English fur traders, and his daughter married a factor for the Hudson's Bay Company. His grandson, Ranald MacDonald became something of an explorer himself. By all accounts, the people who met Comcomly regarded him as a highly intelligent man. Which was strange, because by the science of the time, he should have been an idiot.
A popular scientific theory of the 19th Century held that human behavior was largely innate and determined by a person's physical characteristics such as race. Part of this idea was that there was a correlation between a man's character and the shape of his skull, and scientists would preserve and study human skulls to try to predict abberrant behavior by comparing the skulls of known types. Naturally, larger craniums would suggest greater brain capacity and therefore greater intelligence.
Chief Comcomly belonged to a tribe which practiced cranial deformation. They would bind the heads of infants, while the child's skull was soft and still developing, which would create an elongated head. This was considered a mark of nobility among these "Flathead" Indians.
Chief Comcomly died in 1830, of smallpox according to one source; of malaria according to another. In accordace with tribal tradition, he was given a canoe burial; his body was placed in an ornate canoe along with important personal posessions and elevated up into the trees, out of reach of the wild animals.
But not out of reach of human scavengers. In 1834, a doctor from the Hudson's Bay Company post in Fort Vancouver, snuck into the burial grounds at night, opened the coffin and decapitated the body. He sent the skull to a collegue in England, writing:
"By his ability? Cunning? Or what you please to call it, he raised himself and family to a power and influence which no Indian has since possessed in the districts of the Columbia below the first rapids one hundred and fifty miles from the sea. When the phrenologists look at this frontal development, what will they say to this?"
The skull remained in the Royal Naval Museum in London for over a century. In the 1950s, it was sent to a historical group in Oregon, and then loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In 1972 Comcomly's descendents requested that the skull be returned to them, and it was buried near the Chief's native village in Washington State.
Game and Story Use
- The PC's need to recover an important relic which has been stolen by unscrupulous scientists
- Or, they have been hired by unscrupulous scientists to steal it themselves
- The practice of skull-flattening could be an interesting piece of background to a group of NPCs the party meets, or even for a PC.
- Canoe burial sounds like a fairly cool custom in its own right….