An archaeologist, anthropologist and geneticist from the University of Leicester Turi King – about how in the twisted male skeleton it was possible to identify the most odious English king and why, in fact, he was not at all odious.
Turi King – PhD, geneticist, archaeologist and anthropologist, lecturer at the University of Leicester. In 2016, she became an honorary member of the British Science Association. Studying physical anthropology at Cambridge, she learned about the genetic identification of the remains of Nicholas II and became interested in genetics. After that, she moved to Leicester, because it was there that the geneticist Alec Jefferis worked, who came up with the so-called technique of genetic fingerprinting, that is, the identification of organisms using a unique sequence of nucleotides in their DNA. In 2008, her dissertation received a prize from the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Cambridge.
Date of death, history and chemistry
First of all, it was necessary to date the death of a found person as accurately as possible – and compare the date with the date of death of Richard III. This is done using radiocarbon analysis. In the atmosphere, one carbon atom of a trillion contains two extra neutrons – such atoms are unstable and are called carbon-14 or radiocarbon. In living organisms, the concentration of radiocarbon is the same as in the atmosphere, but when the body dies, the carbon exchange in it ceases. Carbon-14 gradually decays, and its concentration decreases. Thus, if you take a fragment of a person’s bone, isolate carbon and determine the ratio of stable and unstable atoms, you can roughly determine when this person died. Fragments of bones found in the abbey church were sent to two independent laboratories involved in radiocarbon analysis. Both of them showed approximately the second quarter of the 15th century. But Richard III died later – in 1485.
Another study helped to understand – the analysis of stable isotopes. The fact is that the ratio of isotopes of different chemicals in the bones and teeth of a person can tell about how he ate. The man whose archaeologists found in the monastery ate a lot of fish and seafood. In the ocean and in marine organisms, the concentration of carbon-14 is different than in the atmosphere, and this can affect the dating of death: the period when the owner of such a skeleton could have ended is wider than it seems in ordinary radiocarbon analysis. Taking this circumstance into account, scientists got the time between 1450 and 1540. Just in that period, the king died.
Another way to identify the remains is through DNA analysis, and this is exactly what Dr. King specializes in. The bulk of our DNA is a complex and randomly formed mixture of DNA from all our ancestors. But two fragments pass from generation to generation as a whole, preserving the nucleotide sequence: these are mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome. Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted to children only from the mother (although men also have it, including Richard III). The Y chromosome is a chromosome in which there is a gene that determines the male gender. Only men have it and is transmitted through the male line, practically unchanging from generation to generation. In Richard III, the mitochondrial DNA was supposed to coincide with the mitochondrial DNA of his mother and all the people associated with her on the female line, and the Y chromosome with the Y chromosome of all men who are connected with him on the male line. So, it was necessary to compare these fragments of his DNA with the DNA of his suitable descendants.
Richard III did not have any direct descendants (at least well-known): his only son Edward died at the age of ten. But people coming from the closest relatives of Richard III, according to various estimates, today live from 1 to 17 million. However, far from all of them are suitable: if you draw the genealogical tree of Richard, you can take DNA from people whom only men or only women connect with him – but you can move along the tree in any direction, including up.
Richard III received mitochondrial DNA from his mother, Cecilia Neville. The female line from her went through the older sister of Richard III, Anna of York, and back in 2003, historian John Ashdown Hill found the Canadian journalist Joy Ibsen connected with her through the female side. Mrs. Ibsen died in 2008, but she still had three children, and one of them, Michael Ibsen, agreed to give a sample of her DNA.
University of Leicester professor Kevin Schürer traced another female line from Cecilia Neville and found a woman named Wendy Daldig, Michael Ibsen’s fourteen-sister. She had no idea about her connection with the royal family and accepted the call of Turi King for the rally.
Richard III received the Y chromosome from his great-grandfather Edmund Langley. Edmund Langley had the same Y chromosome as his brother John Gaunt. Thus, all descendants of John Gaunt in the male line should have the same Y-chromosome as Richard III. The Schürer found the five living descendants of John Gaunt, connected with him only through men. All of them came from Henry Somerset, a descendant of John Gaunt, who lived in the second half of the 18th century, but did not come together as close relatives. They were also contacted and DNA samples were taken.
Finally, the results were obtained. None of Richard’s five male relatives matched the Y chromosome to the skeleton’s Y chromosome. At the same time, it was the same for four (that is, they nevertheless accounted for each other as male relatives), and for the fifth – another. However, it is quite easy to find an explanation for this: each person receives the Y chromosome from his biological father, and not from his mother’s legitimate husband — and often there is no evidence that a child was born out of wedlock. But the mitochondrial DNA of Michael Ibsen and Wendy Daldig completely coincided with the mitochondrial DNA of the skeleton found in Leicester.
So, archaeologists found a skeleton in the cathedral of the Franciscan monastery, where, according to written evidence, Richard III was buried. As it turned out, this skeleton belonged to a man who died at about the same age and at about the same time as Richard III. He was a man of high social status (he was buried in the altar of the monastery church). Before his death, he received many wounds, including fatal ones. Like Richard, he suffered from scoliosis. Finally, the genetic code in his mitochondrial DNA coincided with the genetic code in the mitochondrial DNA of two people associated with Richard III through the female line. But could all this be a wonderful coincidence? Sure. Researchers even calculated its probability – it is equal to 0.00000015.