What do an Egyptian “god,” an early hominid, and a British king have in common? It’s not just that two-thirds of the list is royalty; it’s that the mysteries surrounding their deaths have been solved using forensics!
We’ve all heard of Lucy, the ~3M year-old skeletal remains of an Australopithecus found in 1974 in northern Ethiopia. This discovery was one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, as it helped us map our own development as a species.
You might be asking yourself how this relates to chemistry — a valid question! Dating fossilized samples is typically done using a technique called carbon dating, which measures the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample. Although this method is only used for dating samples up to about 50,000 years old, other methods of radiometric dating, such as uranium-lead and potassium-argon, are much more accurate and have been used to help us date the age of the earth. While Lucy’s remains weren’t dated using these methods, the process researchers used to date her help to expand our knowledge of how chemistry has advanced archaeologists’ tools for uncovering the truths of the past.
Various other methods of forensic science have been used to identify remains as well. Such is the case of England’s King Richard III, a British monarch who reigned from 1483 until his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The king’s death was significant because he was the last king of the House of York, and ushered in the reign of the House of Tudor.
In September 2012, archaeologists from the University of Leicester, in England, uncovered a skeleton buried under a parking lot that they believed to be that of Richard III. While the physical damage to the skeleton helped matched the accounts of what happened to the monarch, the university sought further proof that these were indeed his remains.
A year later, scientists who had previously traced maternal lineage and identified a 16th generation descendant of Anne of York, the king’s sister, used DNA mapping to prove that both the living descendant and the skeleton were among haplogroup J. Researchers were able to identify shared maternal mitochondrial DNA in both samples to identify the shared haplogroup. With this evidence, researchers concluded that the two were related — and finally laid to rest the search for King Richard III.
|Related Outreach Activity
A fun activity for outreach to students in your community can be found on page 11 of the 2016 ACS National Chemistry Week Booklet. This activity, described by Dr. Al Hazari, uses licorice, toothpicks, and marshmallows to create a double helix — and is a great, tasty way to introduce students to DNA.
One of the most iconic figures in history is King Tutankhamun, or King Tut. This individual, believed by his subjects to be god-like, ruled over Egypt for nine years from 1332 to 1323 BC. Like all pharaohs, King Tut was mummified upon his death. Mummification is a topic for another blog post — but today, let’s zero in on how DNA helped to solve the mystery of Tut’s death.
It has long been thought that the famous king was killed in a chariot accident. Examinations of Tut’s mummified remains revealed that there was significant damage to one of his legs. Additional analysis, however, has identified another potential killer: malaria. While studying Tut’s skeleton, scientists were able to identify multiple strains of DNA consistent with the parasite that carries and spreads malaria. The discovery of these strains indicates that the king contracted several malaria infections in his lifetime. Complications from these infections, paired with an injury to his femur, most likely lead to his death in 1323 BC.
As you can see, forensic chemistry plays an important role in archaeological discoveries. Whether we’re using radioactive dating methods to identify the age of a sample, or using DNA mapping to establish the approximate years in which ancient rulers died, chemistry is essential to telling our story and uncovering the mysteries of the past.