The bones of Richard III (or, possibly, someone else entirely)

Before you get excited about the bones of Richard III being found under a parking lot, consider this — the announcement included no mention of how common the DNA sequences that ostensibly identified the body as Richard really are. Those sequences might match Richard's descendants, but if the sequences are also really common, well, that's not saying much.


  1. …Fresh Horse!

    Regardless of whether it really is Richard eye eye eye, I’m watching Blackadder season 1 tonight

    1. They’re running a special on Channel 4 tonight on the whole find. Normally Channel 4 archaeology stuff would have Tony Robinson narrating, but it looks like we don’t get Baldrick tonight…

      1. I’m confused: Are you saying Tony Robinson won’t be playing Baldrick on Blackadder tonight ‘cuz he’ll be busy on Channel 4, or …

  2. This is what I didn’t understand, all the mainstream media are reporting it as having been determined “beyond a reasonable doubt” but don’t go into details about the DNA matching which is going to be so far removed.

    I guess we’ll just have to wait for a proper peer reviewed paper being published (if it ever is).

    1. they did use the mitochondrial DNA which incurs change at a much reduced rate per generation as compared with nuclear DNA (it’s sensibly presumed)

      my idle question depends upon vertebrae arranging in that one photo ( ).  it’s a pretty subtle business, i’ll admit, but are those vertebrae really sufficiently ‘trapezoidal’ to justify that large a curve?  “To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad”

    2. Because..  

      1) The location matches the historical evidence of where Richard was buried.
      2) The dating of the skeleton matches the correct time.
      3) The age of the person matched Richard’s
      4) The facial features match the historical drawings
      5) The cause of death was consistent with how Richard died
      6) The dietary analysis matches someone of very high class
      7) The skeletal deformation matches what is known about Richard.

      The DNA is corroborative, not definitive.

      You have someone of the right size, build, appearance, and age of Richard. Who died the same way at the same time buried in the same place as Richard…

      Even without the DNA evidence, Richard is, by far, the most likely candidate.

      1. Yup.  My understanding of it is the DNA test could have *falsified* the hypothesis that it was Richard III, and it didn’t, thereby letting the rest of the evidence stand on its own merits.
        The closest relative they could find was a 17th-generation descendant of a cousin. That’s a relatedness factor of about 1 in 260000, calculated naively. But that calculation doesn’t work so well when you are talking about that many generations.To be honest, I’d be surprised if they could find someone who wasn’t that closely related to Richard III anywhere among the population of people with English ancestors.

  3. Yes but the DNA evidence is not the only evidence that points to it being Richard. The location of the skeleton, the spinal deformity, the injuries that killed him, the injuries that were inflicted after death all fit in with contemporary accounts. It is a pity you’ve chosen to ignore this other evidence for the sake of an oh-so-controversial post.

    1. As far as I’m aware, there is already a ton of historical evidence indicating that Richard III did indeed have lots of bones.  So maybe they are his, but I’m not sure what else we might hope to find out from messing around with his corpse.

      1. They were able to determine that the bones came from a person with a high protein diet, had scoliosis, and was killed in a manner that suggested he was an important person of some sort.  Also, the approximate age matches up fairly well (early 30s).  The body was also found in a location where they thought he was likely to be found. 

        I wouldn’t say it’s 100% certain that they have the right guy, but the preponderance of evidence points towards this being the body of Richard III.

        1. Well that’s rather my point – we already knew he was important, had a wonky spine etc. etc.  It’s consistent but doesn’t really seem to justify a lot of undignified poking around.  Might as well dig Diana up and test to show that she was a mother in her mid 30s.

          1. Now they’re able to put him back in a proper grave instead of being lost under a parking lot.  There are lots and lots of lost bodies from that time period, but this guy was a King and probably deserves at least a marked grave. 

          2. Thanks!  I don’t think I ever thought I’d think a thought with both Richard III and Jimmy Hoffa. ;)

          3. Ah, but where should they bury him? Both York and Leicester are claiming the body (and tourist dollars). Whatever. He died a Catholic and should be buried as such.

          4. Shouldn’t he go into St. George’s chapel at Windsor? That’s where most monarchs are buried.

      2. Well for one, I’m pretty sure Leicester City Council would like to talk about some unpaid parking charges

    2. That’s right. From the accounts I read, the DNA evidence was just done as a final step to further support an identification that was already fairly certain based on the other archaeological evidence. Also the fact that a news story didn’t include any details about the DNA testing nor about how common the DNA sequences involved are, doesn’t say anything about the scientific validity of the DNA tests. Few news reports ever say anything about the methods used for establishing reliability of science-based evidence.

    1. No, but I guess that I’m going to have to rent Richard and Richard II from Netflix before I check out the new one.

  4. They looked at the mitochondrial DNA which changes a lot less than the rest of the genome and so should be extremely similar in all female lineage descendants of Richard iii

    1. Yes, but if we back up a couple of generations, then the same mitochondrial DNA will be found in a bazillion people who are not descendants of Richard III.

      I think Y chromosome DNA is more commonly used when researching males. IIRC, this is what proved the link between the Hemmings family and Thomas Jefferson (or a close male relative)

      Edit: oops. I should have read the linked article before commenting. It was mitochondrial DNA that was used to link the skeleton to Richard III. Mea culpa.

      1. The Leicester team is also working to investigate the skeleton’s Y. So far, they’ve built a good profile of male descendants; apparently it’s fingers-crossed for getting Y out of the bones. (Full release, with links to similar PR on the other evidences: radiocarbon, archaeology, genealogy, bone, historical.)

  5. The NYTimes article says that the DNA was compared to the sequences of two known ancestors – one a son of a 16th removed niece and the other remained anonymous. They did not describe the specific tests performed. However, it seems if they have two known ancestors to test against that they could find something conclusive – like look for known diseases that pass genetically or unusual physical traits that pass genetically. In kings these are pretty well documented so it wouldn’t be that hard to research that, say, not only did he have a markedly crooked spine but there is a family history of scoliosis (just making that up – no idea if that is genetic) – and then look in the code for the appropriate chromosomes in the ancestors and show that they all have the same really specific shared trait for the specific form of scoliosis. 

    Can you explain the specific concerns that they might be simply showing shared code that could be broadly shared with a wide population? It seems to me that if I were a DNA researcher that I’d be ruling out those portions of the code as not being useful for positive identification. 

    1. The test carried out here isn’t a CSI-style 1 in a billion DNA fingerprint match, but based on a match of mitochondrial DNA haplogroup.
      This can be fairly meaningful, or not, depending on haplogroup: a match of haplogroup U7, for example, has odds of around 1 in 300, whereas a match of group H is more like 1 in 2.

  6. The researcher states the matched sequence was “relatively rare”:

    1. Cool. It certainly seems like they conclusively ruled that it definitely could be him, so now I imagine they might blow more dough and do more specific tests to identify the skeleton more conclusively. 

  7. I think the most interesting part of confirming the owner of the bones is it allows modern science to produce a story of how the man died, and compare it against written accounts of his death. 

    Opportunities to corroborate (or debunk) those accounts is pretty rare, and fun.

    1. The article I read a few hours earlier (not this one and I unfortunately do not have the link at hand) mentioned that there was no sign of the withered arm that Shakespeare depicted him as having. It sounded like there weren’t any contemporary accounts that mentioned it, but that it was still widely believed to be true, due to the popularity of Shakespeare’s account, making it exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about. Very interesting indeed.

      1. The withered arm thing is a bit strange when you consider how he died:  Charging his horse directly at Henry Tudor and killing several men including a jousting champion before being surrounded and overwhelmed. 

  8. I’m definitely not an expert, but that DNA strain may have just proven that the skeleton was his 17th great grandparent. Each person has as many as 524,288 17th great grandparents.

  9. Well, the Beeb’s confirmed it and Wikipedia’s already been updated.

    I would love to have them tackle “The Two Princes in the Tower.” That is, the two boys of Edward IV who were supposedly murdered by Uncle Richard. Unfortunately, royal permission is needed and there seems to be some waffling on the royal side.

  10. I wonder if some of you skeptics realize you are promoting a sort of anti-intellectual agenda for the sake of, apparently, cheapness. It’s not worth any amount of money to study the bones of a controversial historic figure? I just find that odd and suspect you are not really examining the consequences of your suggested course of development for culture. None of us are all that concerned abut your toughness that you need to be so, uh, melodramatic about it.

  11. Bearing in mind that practically the whole population of Europe is descended from Charlemagne, I think it would be quite silly to say that this skeleton was part of the ‘Royal Line”. DNA sourcing doesn’t really do what you think it does.  I’d really like a good long look at the papers published.  To discover the skeleton of a human being from so long ago with scoliosis isn’t that unusual.  Go back 3 or 4 generations in the UK and you’ll find that most “non-Royals” were criminals of some kind or other.  The ‘other’ being vagrants, who were unemployed people of the time.  Sent to gaol for vagrancy was very common, as was pretending to be the rightful heir to the throne.  

    A skeleton with a curved spine is not special, nor its location, nor the wounds (for the time).

    I will await the findings of those without a vested interest, not connected to Channel 4 or the BBC.  

    1. And so another conspiracy theory was born…

      We have a curved-spine skeleton like the one Richard III had, buried in the (now-destroyed) Catholic church where sources say Richard III was buried, a skeleton which dates from the same time Richard III was buried, with wounds typical of a battle like the one Richard III fought, with more wounds typical of the gruesome parade Richard III was subjected back in Leicester after the battle, buried with arms still shackled like Richard III was, with a lot of other characteristics typical of a rich person (high-protein and high-sugar diet, not very common back then) which Richard III certainly was, matching mitochondrial DNA from Richard III descendants.

      But no, can’t be Richard III. It’s all a plot from freemasons at Channel 4, covering for templars at BBC and University of Leicester; the Bilderberg group must certainly be involved. Everyone knows Richard III is buried at Area 51!

      (I’d really like a good long look at the list of “proofs” you’d want before accepting the body is of Richard III Plantagenet. Should he have had a birth certificate on himself? a driving licence perhaps?)

    2.  Sorry, but are you really asserting that there are a number of skeletons with both head injuries and scoliosis found on the site where Richard III was supposedly buried in an unmarked grave? Citation, please.

  12. 1) The article Jay Wherley linked to stated that the skeleton had a “rare” mt-DNA haplogroup, so it wouldn’t have been just H.  While most mt-DNA haplogroups are many MANY thousands of years old, some are relatively recent mutations (occurring during recorded history).

    2) The same article says they already have several proven paternal descendants who have volunteered their DNA, so the Y-DNA haplogroup should be determined pretty soon.  Y-DNA haplogroups are still old, but due to mutations are usually very useful for pinning down the ancestral male line.

    3) Autosomal DNA (chromosomes 1-22 and the X) will show segment matches to about the 5th or 6th cousin range in most cases.  DNA is tricky: some bona fide 3rd cousins will have no segment matches in common, and occasionally a much more distant relationship will still have one or two segments that have held together over many generations (there are a couple of reasons for this: cold spots or inversion being the most likely).  While the NYTimes article did not specify which test was used with the 16th generation descendant, the article linked by Wherley did: it was the mitochondrial test, which makes sense, because 16 generations is too long ago to match at the autosomal level.  (And of course you can’t match Y-DNA with a niece!)

    Basically, haplogroups show deep ancestry whereas autosomal DNA is useful for recent genealogy….but rare haplogroups can be very useful for the mid-range.

  13. Although there’s no real way mitochondrial DNA could be used to make any definite identification, I hope this spurs some serious re-examining of Richard III life.

  14. A geneaology of the maternal line down to Joy Brown, the mother of Michael Ibsen, the tested individual.

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