DNA proves parking lot skeleton is Richard III

The skull of Richard III. (Credit: U. Leicester)

Researchers have discovered overwhelming evidence that a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester, England, belonged to King Richard III. The findings close what is probably the UK’s oldest forensic case.

In August 2012, the University of Leicester, in collaboration with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, began an ambitious archaeological project: a search for the lost grave of King Richard III—the last English king to die in battle.

Incredibly, the excavation uncovered not only the friary of Grey Friars but also a battle-scarred skeleton with spinal curvature. On February 4, 2013, the university announced that these were ostensibly the remains of King Richard III—but that more research would be necessary.

The research, published in Nature Communications, traced seven living relatives of Richard III—two by the female line and five by the male line. Turi King of the University of Leicester led the work.

The researchers collected DNA from Richard III’s living relatives and analyzed several genetic markers, including the complete mitochondrial genomes, inherited through the maternal line, and Y-chromosomal markers, inherited through the paternal line, from both the skeletal remains and the living relatives.

While the Y-chromosomal markers differ, the mitochondrial genome shows a genetic match between the skeleton and the maternal line relatives. The former result is not unsurprising as the chances for a false-paternity event is fairly high after so many generations.

‘Beyond reasonable doubt’

The paper is also the first to carry out a statistical analysis of all the evidence together to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester is indeed the remains of King Richard III.

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The researchers also used genetic markers to determine hair and eye color of Richard III and found that with probably blond hair and almost certainly blue eyes Richard III looked most similar to his depiction in one of the earliest portraits of him that survived, that in the Society of Antiquaries in London.

“Our paper covers all the genetic and genealogical analysis involved in the identification of the remains of Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester and is the first to draw together all the strands of evidence to come to a conclusion about the identity of those remains,” says King, who carried out part of her research in a laboratory at the University of York.

“Even with our highly conservative analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of King Richard III, thereby closing an over 500 year old missing person’s case.”

Ancient DNA expert Professor Michi Hofreiter, an honorary professor of biology at the University of York, adds: “It’s amazing how much we can deduce from ancient DNA today. Making inferences about hair or eye color of a person just from some DNA snippets obtained from a skeleton would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.”

Professor Hofreiter and Gloria Gonzalez Fortes worked on the analysis at York and, subsequently, at the University of Potsdam.

The research team now plans to sequence the complete genome of Richard III to learn more about the last English king to die in battle.

Source: University of York