High-Status Indigenous Family Brought Back to Life With Digital Reconstruction

Some 3,700 years ago, the relatives were given elaborate burials along the coast of British Columbia

3-D forensic facial reconstruction of a shíshálh Chief who lived nearly 4,000 years ago. © Philippe Froesch, Visual Forensic

The family of four huddles against a black backdrop, blinking and swaying slightly. Their eyes are shiny and dark, their hair sleek and black. They have wrinkles, and pores and angular cheekbones. They seem remarkably lifelike—but they are digitized reconstructions that depict a wealthy indigenous family that lived 3,700 years ago.

On July 1, as Heather Pringle reports for National Geographic, the 3-D renderings went on display at two museums in Canada: the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec and the Tems Swiya Museum in British Columbia. The detailed images, which depict the family’s faces and shoulders, are the product of a collaboration between the Canadian Museum of History, researchers at the University of Toronto and members of the indigenous shíshálh Nation.

In 2010, shíshálh researchers noticed shells, beads and other artifacts cropping up along a remote coastline of their land, which is located northwest of Vancouver. When archaeologists excavated the area, they unearthed a remarkable scene: the bodies of a middle-aged man, a young woman, two young men and an infant. The remains had been covered with hundreds of thousands of decorative beads, suggesting that the deceased—who appear to have been related—possessed immense power and wealth.

“These are some of the most elaborate burials in North America before European contact,” Terence Clark, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and the director of the shíshálh Archaeological Research Project, tells Pringle.

Researchers believe that the middle-aged man, who was about 50-years-old when he died, was an ancient chief. His body was cloaked in an elaborate garment decorated with some 350,000 stone beads. Experts estimate that it would have taken an experienced bead-maker at least 35,000 hours to make the garment—an immense quantity of time that only would have been devoted to a person of high status.

When they excavated the body of the woman, archaeologists found a shell necklace draped around her neck and 5,700 beads around her torso. The area near her skull was sprinkled with 3,200 tiny beads that were not much larger than a grain of sand, leading researchers to believe that they were woven into her hair.

The remains of the two young men were buried in a single grave, and analysis of their teeth and skulls suggests that they may have been twins. Like the other members of their family, the men were interred with thousands of shells and beads. The grave of the infant was a less elaborate affair. Its body was covered in red ochre, which is still used in the rituals of indigenous people of the Northwest Coast.

The digital reconstructions give new life to these ancient remains. As Kristina Killgrove reports for Forbes, the CGI studio Visualforensic was recruited to help with the project, using cutting edge technology to render vivid depictions of the family. Experts also consulted with representatives of the shíshálh Nation to make sure that the details of the reconstruction—the clothing, the hair, the jewelry—accurately reflect shíshálh culture and history.

“To look back on some of our people that existed within our territory 4,000 years ago, and to be in close proximity of their images — it's a humbling experience," Chief Warren Paull of the shíshálh Nation told CBC News back in May, when the images were first revealed. "I see cousins. I see family."

Though the likenesses of the family will be preserved in museums for years to come, their bodies have been returned to the shíshálh Nation for reburial in their native land.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.