Mental Floss

5 Historical Figures (and Families) ID'd with DNA

Meghan Holohan
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For some historical figures, death wasn't the end of their journeys. As wars were waged and empires changed, famous bodies were moved from graveyard to graveyard. Others were simply lost. Religious figures were even worse off—people often traded their bones as collectors' items and symbols of power. But thanks to DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, scientists have identified the bodies of some notable people who were previously thought to be lost. Here are their stories.

1. Christopher Columbus

In death, Christopher Columbus traveled almost as much as he did in life. He wanted to be buried in Hispaniola (an island in the Antilles), but there were no proper churches there to perform a religious ceremony. His family buried him in Valladolid, Spain, and then he was moved with his son Diego to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1537. In 1795 Spain ceded the island to France, and his body was moved to Havana; as least, that's what some say. In 1877, a crew at the cathedral in Santo Domingo unearthed a coffin with the inscription "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon." The Dominican Republic claims that this proves the Spaniards moved the wrong body to Havana. In any case, a body that may or may not have been Columbus was moved again from Havana to Seville, Spain in 1898.

Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente compared the Seville body DNA with Columbus' brother, Diego, and found that the remains had a mitochondrial DNA match. This proved that at least some, if not all, of Columbus' body returned to Spain. Dominicans balked at the results, insisting Columbus' body is buried in their country. The Dominicans refuse to open the coffin, claiming they are religious and don't like to bother the dead. Part of Columbus' body could be buried in Dominican Republic and part could be in Spain, but if the Dominican Republic doesn't unseal the coffin, only Seville can claim the remains of the explorer.

2. Joan of Arc

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Many speculate that the bones were sent to the Vatican to help Joan of Arc's chances for sainthood. In 1909, scientists decided it was highly probable that the bones belonged to the martyr, which would allow for their use in the beatification and canonization of Joan. In 2006, French scientists Phillippe Charlier began DNA testing on the relics. Because he had no familial DNA, the tests could only reveal whether the rib belonged to a 19-year-old girl who lived during the 15th century. Using carbon dating, Charlier discovered that the rib was from an Egyptian mummy of underterminable gender who died between 7 and 3 B.C.E. and the cat femur was from a mummified cat of the same period.

3. Nicolaus Copernicus

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Marie Allen, a genetic expert from Uppsala University in Sweden, took DNA samples from the teeth and bones and compared it to hairs found on a book that belonged to Copernicus. She found a match, confirming that Copernicus had indeed been interred beneath the cathedral floor. Using computer reconstruction techniques, researchers were able to generate a face from the bones and compare it to paintings of the scientist. The skull had a broken nose and a gash over one eye socket, just as the living Copernicus did.

4. St. Luke the Evangelist

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In the Middle Ages, trading religious relics was a popular custom. It was a booming industry and devout rulers sought relics, hoping to bolster their power. In 1354, Emperor Charles IV took the head of Luke to Prague, where he held court.

For a time, most people forgot about the body in Padua. In 1998, Guido Barbujani of the University of Ferrara broke the seals of the coffin to study of the corpse. The head was returned from Prague and it fit perfectly on the topmost vertebra. Without direct descendants, scientists couldn't identify Luke, but they could use radiocarbon dating to determine how old the bones were. They were pleased to find the bones belonged a man who died in his 80s around 150 C.E. Using DNA extracted from a tooth in the coffin and comparing it to samples from modern day Kurds and Greeks, Barbujani learned that the body was three times more likely to be Syrian than Greek. He said if Luke's body is a fake relic, it is one of the most accurate fakes on record.

5. The Romanovs

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On July 16, 1918, ten Bolshevik revolutionaries shot and speared Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, and their five children: Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana, and Anastasia. The soldiers buried the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. In 1922, a woman named Anna Anderson emerged claiming that she was, in fact, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anderson had previously been institutionalized and attempted suicide (because, she said, no one believed she was Anastasia). Opinions were mixed as to whether Anderson was the real Anastasia, but no one could prove her wrong for much of the 20th century.

In 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, five bodies were discovered and were positively identified through DNA testing of descendants as Romanovs. They compared these results to Anderson, who had died and was cremated; the results proved there was no genetic connection between Anderson and any of the Romanovs.

In July 2007, two bodies were discovered near the Ural Mountains; these remains were badly burned and chemically damaged from Soviet cremation experimentation. Scientists conducted three DNA tests—mitochondrial DNA, autosomal STR, and Y-STR. The mitochondrial DNA proved the children were Czarina Alexandra's; the SRT paternity test proved it was highly likely that the bodies were children of the Czar and Czarina; the Y-STR test was only conducted on Alexei and matched both Nicholas' and Prince Andrew's tests. Only one question remains: whether the girl's body is another of the Grand Duchesses, or Anastasia herself.

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