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DNA helps solve historical mysteries

December 28, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
I'm no scientist, but I've been fascinated by the way DNA has been used to solve historical mysteries in the last 20 years.

One of the earliest and most prominent mysteries solved was the fate of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The family was killed by Bolsheviks in July 1918 and for decades people wondered if one of the daughters, the famous Anastasia, could have escaped. In the 1990s, the bodies of the missing family were discovered and ID'd through a comparison of their DNA with that of one of their relatives – Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Two bodies were missing from that original group but were found a few years ago in a nearby location in Russia. Their DNA matched the original group. Not only that, but science had advanced enough for scientists to diagnose the son in the family with the most serious type of hemophilia and also to determine that one of his sisters had been a carrier for the disease. As a history buff with a fondness for "what if?" historical novels, I'm curious which of the girls was the carrier, since she could have passed hemophilia down to any sons she had and possibly had some influence on royal history. Unfortunately, the DNA can't tell us which of the girls was which since they were so close in age.

Forensic science might, but there was some disagreement between the Russian and American scientists who originally identified the Romanov family in the 1990s. The Russian scientists thought the girl missing from the original group was Grand Duchess Maria; the American scientists thought she was Anastasia because the bones that had been found were too tall and the bones in the back were not immature enough to belong to the 17-year-old Grand Duchess. Anastasia was about 5 feet 2 inches tall and her older sister Maria was several inches taller. The bones they found belonged to a taller girl. Going by the journal article on which of the royals was a hemophilia carrier, scientists are going to stick with the official Russian position that the missing girl was Maria and the carrier was Anastasia, though I think that determination is probably wrong.

DNA has also helped solve other riddles: the fate of the missing heir to the French throne during the French Revolution; whether Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings' children. The DNA could help identify the remains of the infamous Richard III, found buried under an English parking lot earlier this year. National Geographic has a story this month about the Richard III research, which made me think about the whole Romanov controversy again.

I suppose none of it really matters in the grand scheme of things, but it does fill in some of the missing puzzle pieces of history. Richard's bones might tell us something about who he was and how he lived, just as the Romanov bones tell us what diseases they had and how they might have affected the history of their country. I will be following the story about Richard III and any other mysteries solved by DNA.


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