In September I reported on the archaeological excavation in Leicester that had found a skeleton that could be the remains of King Richard 3rd. This morning the teams involved in the dig and the DNA analysis announced that the DNA tests had proven positive and the skeleton was indeed that of the king beyond any reasonable doubt.
The DNA test involved isolating mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton. This is DNA found inside the bodies cells in the mitochondria that are used to metabolize nutrients and provide energy. Unlike nuclear DNA this DNA is passed down from the mother only so to compare with the DNA of living people they had to find someone who shared a common female ancestor with King Richard where both lines of descendants are maternal. The final people in the line can be male and luckily one family with living males who could trace their lines was found. If this discovery had been made after their death it might have been impossible to make the DNA test.
The skeleton found also showed characteristics of a deformed spine and battle wounds that would have been fatal. This fits historical descriptions of Richard III and his final moments. These historical accounts had not been considered reliable in the past but the discovery of his remains confirms that they were perfectly accurate.
Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet monarchs of England from the 15th century so this discovery is very important for English history. His body will now be reinterred at Leicester cathedral.
If you are in the UK you can watch a documentary that followed the discovery on channel 4 this evening.
Update: I watched the program on channel 4 last night and was a little disappointed that much of the science was glossed over. For example, very little was said about the DNA other than it gave a match. It is a great pity that this was not covered by channel 4′s long running archaeology series “time team” who would have done a much better job of it.
The evidence that the skeleton found is indeed Richard III included
- The place of burial in the church matched expectations
- He had battle scars consistent with records of his final moments
- He had a curved spine as depicted in historical records (although doubted by his followers)
- His slight build was also consistent with accounts from people who knew him
- Carbon dating was spot on with an error range of a few decades
- Analysis indicated a high status diet that would have been available only to a few
- Mitochondrial DNA was a perfect match with authenticated ancestors through maternal lines
- The facial reconstruction produced a perfect match with his best portrait
The facial reconstruction was shown last night on TV and we be revealed online today.
It is notable that the whole project took place because of the insistence of one woman who was an amateur historian. She was refused the necessary grant of £10,000 but managed to raise it privately through the internet. When they first visited the car park there was a space marked with an R which they jokingly thought might mark the spot. It did!