19. Jul, 2018

DNA and the bones in Westminster Abbey

Before getting excited about finding a modern comparator whose mtDNA would be the same as Edward IV's sons (the 'Princes in the Tower'), there are several reasons to proceed cautiously ...

1. We don’t know how many individuals are represented by the bones in the Westminster urn, which contains animal bones as well as human. When discovered in 1674, the bones were thrown on a rubbish heap where they lay for an unknown period. They were subsequently handled, and other material probably substituted, an unknown number of times. The urn was opened again in 1933 and the entire contents once more subjected to extensive handling and examination. They are therefore thoroughly contaminated.

2. To identify Richard III’s remains (which had lain pristine and undisturbed for five centuries) the only successful DNA retrieved was from a tooth.

3. The only way to make reliable DNA comparisons from the urn would be to test every human bone it contains. If you test only the teeth, the ‘mystery’ is not conclusively solved: there will always be dissenters who will claim that the princes’ bones are present but never yielded DNA samples.  

4. When John Ashdown-Hill submitted his first mtDNA comparator for Richard III, the laboratory refused to accept it without double-checking and finding their own mtDNA donor. They even insisted on doing research to find a Y-chromosome donor to cross-check against the remains. Is this going to happen with Glen Moran’s discovery?

5. It’s a temptation to want to solve a mystery – the chaps in 1933 thought they were doing that. But they hadn’t enough scientific knowledge then, and neither do we now, if DNA testing is all we have.