Unless you were living under a parking lot, you probably heard that the remains of King Richard III had been uncovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Richard III, who was King of England for only two years, 1483-5, died in the Battle of Bosworth Field, which was essentially the last battle of the civil war Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that raged across England in the latter half of the 15th century. The leader of the winning side, the Lancastrians, was Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII (and whose son included the infamous Henry VIII and granddaughters were Mary I and Elizabeth I). Richard was unceremoniously buried, which, over the centuries, was itself buried under the city of Leicester.
According to historical records, Richard III developed idiopathic scoliosis during his childhood, which was mocked by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Richard III. Contemporary historians wrote that Richard was killed by several blows to the head with swords and his helmet might have been knocked off during the battle. (Interestingly, Richard was the last British monarch to have died in battle.)
From these pieces of evidence, scientists from the University of Leicester drew upon historical evidence of both the scoliosis and the battle wounds and compared them to the skeleton found under the parking lot in Leicester. The scientists stated that the skeleton was Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But the researchers went beyond just skeletal (and frankly circumstantial) evidence that the remains were those of Richard III. They compared mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the skeleton to the last two living descendants from Richard’s maternal line (amazing that only two direct descendants remain alive), preferred over paternal DNA for accuracy, and concluded that the skeleton was indeed Richard III.
I am an amateur historian, and my particular area of interest happens to be the Plantagenet dynasty, of which Richard III was the last. To hear that his remains were found was fascinating, and scientifically intriguing. But after a day of thinking about it, I started to become slightly more skeptical of the conclusions. And so did a few other scientists.
Let’s look at the skeleton first. The middle ages were a horrible and violent time. Skeletons with battle scars are not rare, and we should not expect them to be. Also, a hunchback would not be unknown, since there would be no surgical treatments to correct. In fact, we don’t have actual evidence of what might have caused Richard’s condition, and it could have been exaggerated by the Tudor victors. Shakespeare has a lot of culpability in our image of what kind of person Richard was. So, it is possible that the skeleton could be exactly how Richard III was described, or it could be just some random dead soldier from that period. However, the location, the description, and dating of the burial layer were all consistent with an individual who could be Richard III.
That’s why the mtDNA is so important, because it can (not should) add to the evidence. There are some issues:
- mtDNA degrades over time. A 500 year old skeleton may only 50-150 usable fragments (from out of 15,000 original base pairs). What if the fragments contained a previous mutation (in the living individual) that skews the results?
- mtDNA is not appropriate in pinpointing identity, just broad population identification. I could have the same mtDNA as in those 50-150 fragments and not be related to Richard directly, though I could be related to the same population as Richard.
But the biggest issue is: where is the peer review? Where is the paper? Where is the data?
Science should not be done by press release and press conference. I get the feeling that there was a rush to conclusion, without careful analysis. One of the lead scientists of the project, geneticist Turi King matched the skeletal mtDNA from the supposed relatives. Because of the haste to make an announcement, she was only able to sequence the mtDNA control region. Of course, this region is highly susceptible to mutation, so finding a match despite the high chance of mutation is a strong indicator that individuals are related. But what if further analysis does show that they aren’t related. Or what if a random selection of English people, who aren’t theoretically related to Richard, show that their mtDNA is related? Because some sequences of mtDNA are common in European populations, because Europeans are fairly closely related.
In the end, the evidence looks good. But is it convincing? Not quite yet. Put it up for peer review. Publish it. Let your peers critique and/or accept it. But announcing it during a press conference without critical analysis? I’m a bit skeptical.