Recovery and analysis of remains from the Battle of Iquique

The Naval Battle of Iquique took place in May 21st 1879, during the War of the Pacific – also known as the “Nitrate War” – in which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia. The old Chilean wooden corvette Esmeralda and the schooner Covadonga were maintaining the blockade in the port of Iquique, while the big forces moved to El Callao to fight against the Peruvian fleet. However, both fleets at sea failed to see each other, so the armored ships Huascar and Independencia arrived in Iquique and took by surprise the Chilean ships.

Acoustic image of the wreck of Esmeralda, showing the place where the skull was found (Aft, port side)

The Independence chased the Covadonga near the shore, making her to go aground in shallow water. The Esmeralda fought bravely against the Huascar despite the unequal forces and she refused to surrender. During this epic battle three quarters of the Esmeralda crew died, including her commander, Arturo Prat. She finally sank with her flag still flying. This action was a serious blow to the Chilean people, and Commander Prat became the biggest hero in the country, and his crew was honoured for their fight.

This famous action is why Esmeralda is by far the most important wrecked ship in Chile.

Following a request by the Chilean Navy, in April 2010, an archeological expedition was made to the shipwreck site, by a specialised enterprise named ARKA. In charge of the underwater survey was archeologist Diego Carabias, with the support of the Quintay Marine Investigation Center from the Andres Bello University. All involved in this underwater expedition collaboration donated their services free of charge. 

The main purpose of this expedition, authorised by the National Monuments Council, was the recovery of a skull seen in a previous expedition. This became an important procedure, since it was the first time human remains were found in the Esmeralda. The decision to recover these remains was made due to the poor condition of the corpse

  The Esmeralda skull before conservation

Once the skull was recovered, a conservation procedure was begun in the ARKA’s campus. From there the skull was sent to the Anthropology Department of the University of Chile. Here, experts made studies to gather as much information as possible. Through a computerised axial tomography, scanner 3D laser, and some other tests, the experts tried to learn the skull's morphology, health, way of life and even its identity. Establishing the identity is technically impossible without identifying a possible subject through a search for a living descendant through the female line. It was possible to positively conclude the skull belonged to one of the crew members in 1879. 

Currently the skull is in the safekeeping of the National Maritime Museum with the possibility of future DNA studies to learn its identity. 


(Left) The Esmeralda skull after conservation.  (Right) Cristián Del Real, Director of the National Maritime Museum, receiving the skull from Loredana Rosso, Director of the Valparaiso’s Natural History Museum

In 2017, during the commemoration of the Naval Battle of Iquique, and with the President of the Republic and the highest national authorities present, the skull will be placed in the National Navy Monument, in Valparaiso, where it will rest next to the remains of Arturo Prat and twenty one other heroes.