DNA study of Franklin Expedition’s sailors

Scientists have gathered a DNA database from 24 skeletons of members of the 19th century ill-fated Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. They hope to identify some of the bodies scattered in the Canadian Arctic.

Sonar image of HMS Erebus (by Parks Canada)

Researchers conducted the first genetic tests on members of the expedition who died following the desertion of the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Both vessels of the expedition lead by Sir John Franklin, were trapped in thick sea ice in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in 1846 with a crew of 129. A short note from April 25, 1848, being the last communication recorded, indicated that the survivors abandoned the ships just off King William Island and embarked on a harsh journey south toward trading posts on the mainland, but it seems none of them made it. Along the supposed route, over the decades researchers found remains of several sailors in boats and makeshift campsites. Bones of the skeletons s bear scars of diseases like curvy, and some even have the signatures of cannibalism. Several artefacts from the HMS Erebus, including a medicine bottle and tunic buttons, as well as the ship’s bronze bell, have also been uncovered. DNA from 37 bone and tooth samples found at eight different sites around King William Island indicate they came from 24 different crew members. Twenty-one of these individuals had been found at locations around Erebus Bay, confirming it as a location of some importance following the desertion of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. A few of the early fatalities were buried at Beechey Island and their frozen remains, which were exhumed by archaeologists in the 1980s, were eerily well-preserved. In one case, bones from the same individual were found at two different sites about 1.7 kilometres apart. Four samples in the study were identified as female, which doesn’t fit with the picture of an all-male expedition crew. The researchers ruled out the possibility that these samples came from Inuit women. These results might be compromised by the method’s limitations as ancient DNA studies commonly fail to amplify the male Y chromosome due to insufficient quantity or quality of DNA, resulting in false female identification. On the other hand it was not unheard of for women to serve in disguise in the Royal Navy. Earlier researchers performed the study of nails of the skeletons providing insight about the diet and health of the survivors in their last moments.

(after Live Science & Parks Canada)

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