Late last month human bones were found protruding from the side of an eroding cliff on Prince Edward Island in Canada.
But it wasn’t a crime scene. The remains, discovered by a resident who was out for a walk along the western coast of the province, were most likely from a shipwreck that occurred about 150 years ago.
It’s also possible that the bones had previously been found and buried, said Scott Ferris, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Prince Edward Island. Hurricane Fiona, he added, caused erosion and damage to the island in 2022, raising the possibility that more similar remains could be found.
Authorities came to the conclusion that the bones most likely came from a shipwreck, largely by talking to locals familiar with the island’s history and reviewing historical accounts, said Cpl. Gavin Moore, another RCMP spokesperson in Prince Edward Island.
While an investigation is ongoing, Corporal Moore said the bones are unlikely to be linked to recent events.
But if local experts agree that a shipwreck is the most likely scenario, a question arises: which one?
Unfortunately, we will probably never know. There were simply too many shipwrecks in the area, many of which have been lost to history.
During the Age of Sail – a period from the 16th century to the 19th century in which sailing ships were commonly used for trade, travel and warfare – the seas around Prince Edward Island were very busy. Ships would come from New England to fish (cod and, later, mackerel). Others came for the thriving lumber trade.
As a result, there have been hundreds of shipwrecks around the island, said Edward MacDonald, a history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. Not all wrecks were documented at the time and many have been lost to history.
For Prince Edward Island, the age of sail reached its peak between 1840 and 1880, when more than 3,000 wooden sailing ships were built on the island, Professor MacDonald said.
“If in fact the bones are from a shipwreck,” he said, “that speaks to P.E.I.’s marine history and its location in the middle of an important shipping route.”
Although bones are a relatively rare find on the island, shipwreck remains are found regularly, Professor MacDonald, who worked for the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, said in a telephone interview.
“Almost every year, a storm exposes the remains of a shipwreck on PEI,” he said. The reason, he added, is that “single incidents occurred all the time. Furthermore, ships are abandoned. It’s like abandoned cars.”
Some storms stand out in the province’s history. The Yankee storm of October 1851, for example, caused at least 74 shipwrecks and 150 victims.
It is unlikely, however, that the remains that emerged late last month were from one of those wrecks, because they were found on the other side of the island, Professor MacDonald said.
According to John Cousins, a folklorist who wrote a book about the island’s history, the area where the bones were found, at West Cape on the western side of the island, was dangerous for ships.
“There, the reef is shallow and dangerous,” he said. “The waters driven by the tide and wind become very rough and a sailing vessel, drawing perhaps 10 or 12 feet of water, could run aground there.”
Mr. Cousins, born and raised on Prince Edward Island, said in an email that he remembered a time when “there was no running water, no electricity, very few telephones and very few cars.” He said he went to his first movie “on horseback and in a carriage.”
People who died in shipwrecks were often buried near shore, rather than in a cemetery.
“With half a meter of erosion a year, they would just be washed away,” Cousins said. “This kind of thing has been common in the West Cape for generations.”
The possibility of more such discoveries is likely as the coast continues to erode and sea levels rise.
“I just think there are probably even more bones to reveal as the erosion occurs,” Paul Wood, who lives on top of the cliff where the bones were found, he told CBC.
It is not the first time human remains have been found in the area, authorities said. Similar discoveries occurred in 2002, as well as in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Corporal Moore, a police spokesman.
But the discovery of remains or remains of shipwrecks sparks a wave of interest across the island every time it happens.
“I’m still surprised when that happens now because the bluff has eroded hundreds of feet in some places,” Cousins said.
Professor MacDonald said these discoveries open a window into a vanished past, although they usually leave people with more questions than answers. But this can stimulate the imagination, he added, prompting people to complete the story themselves.
“And who,” he said, “doesn’t love a good story?”