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5 Historical Figures (and Families) ID'd with DNA

For some historical figures, death wasn't the end of their journeys. As wars were waged and empires changed, famous bodies were moved from graveyard to graveyard. Others were simply lost. Religious figures were even worse off—people often traded their bones as collectors' items and symbols of power. But thanks to DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, scientists have identified the bodies of some notable people who were previously thought to be lost. Here are their stories.

1. Christopher Columbus

In death, Christopher Columbus traveled almost as much as he did in life. He wanted to be buried in Hispaniola (an island in the Antilles), but there were no proper churches there to perform a religious ceremony. His family buried him in Valladolid, Spain, and then he was moved with his son Diego to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1537. In 1795 Spain ceded the island to France, and his body was moved to Havana; as least, that's what some say. In 1877, a crew at the cathedral in Santo Domingo unearthed a coffin with the inscription "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon." The Dominican Republic claims that this proves the Spaniards moved the wrong body to Havana. In any case, a body that may or may not have been Columbus was moved again from Havana to Seville, Spain in 1898.

Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente compared the Seville body DNA with Columbus' brother, Diego, and found that the remains had a mitochondrial DNA match. This proved that at least some, if not all, of Columbus' body returned to Spain. Dominicans balked at the results, insisting Columbus' body is buried in their country. The Dominicans refuse to open the coffin, claiming they are religious and don't like to bother the dead. Part of Columbus' body could be buried in Dominican Republic and part could be in Spain, but if the Dominican Republic doesn't unseal the coffin, only Seville can claim the remains of the explorer.

2. Joan of Arc

joan-arc.jpgIn 1431, the British condemned 19-year-old Joan of Arc to death for heresy. They strapped her to a stake and set her aflame. Her heart did not burn, which the devout saw as a miracle. The British didn't want any part of her body to be intact because they feared the French would make her a martyr, so they burned it a second and third time before spreading the ashes over the Seine. One follower claimed to have saved some materials from the burning: a little wood, a cat femur (a cat was often thrown on the pyres of accused witches), a rib, and bits of clothes. In 1867 a Parisian pharmacist claimed to find a jar with these items in it, bearing the inscription "Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans." These eventually landed in the Vatican's collection and many considered them to be some of most hallowed Catholic relics.

Many speculate that the bones were sent to the Vatican to help Joan of Arc's chances for sainthood. In 1909, scientists decided it was highly probable that the bones belonged to the martyr, which would allow for their use in the beatification and canonization of Joan. In 2006, French scientists Phillippe Charlier began DNA testing on the relics. Because he had no familial DNA, the tests could only reveal whether the rib belonged to a 19-year-old girl who lived during the 15th century. Using carbon dating, Charlier discovered that the rib was from an Egyptian mummy of underterminable gender who died between 7 and 3 B.C.E. and the cat femur was from a mummified cat of the same period.

3. Nicolaus Copernicus

copernicus.jpgCopernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe and the planets revolved around it) in 1543 "“ the same year he died following a stroke and coma. He was buried in an unmarked grave and there were no public records of his final resting place. Because he lived most of his life in Northern Poland, historians assumed he was buried around Frombork. In 2004 archeologist Jerzy Gassowski began searching for Copernicus' body in the Cathedral of Frombork. He found bones under tiles near the altar and a broken vault and coffin with teeth inside. Gassowski pieced together an nearly complete skeleton, missing only a bottom jaw.

Marie Allen, a genetic expert from Uppsala University in Sweden, took DNA samples from the teeth and bones and compared it to hairs found on a book that belonged to Copernicus. She found a match, confirming that Copernicus had indeed been interred beneath the cathedral floor. Using computer reconstruction techniques, researchers were able to generate a face from the bones and compare it to paintings of the scientist. The skull had a broken nose and a gash over one eye socket, just as the living Copernicus did.

4. St. Luke the Evangelist

st-luke.jpgLuke was born in Antioch and worked as a physician until he met the Apostle Paul and became his faithful follower. Luke died at age 84 in 150 C.E. and was buried in Thebes, but this was far from his final resting place. In 338 C.E. his body was moved to Constantinople and moved again in 1177 C.E. to Padua, Italy, to save his remains from rulers bent on destroying religious artifacts.

In the Middle Ages, trading religious relics was a popular custom. It was a booming industry and devout rulers sought relics, hoping to bolster their power. In 1354, Emperor Charles IV took the head of Luke to Prague, where he held court.

For a time, most people forgot about the body in Padua. In 1998, Guido Barbujani of the University of Ferrara broke the seals of the coffin to study of the corpse. The head was returned from Prague and it fit perfectly on the topmost vertebra. Without direct descendants, scientists couldn't identify Luke, but they could use radiocarbon dating to determine how old the bones were. They were pleased to find the bones belonged a man who died in his 80s around 150 C.E. Using DNA extracted from a tooth in the coffin and comparing it to samples from modern day Kurds and Greeks, Barbujani learned that the body was three times more likely to be Syrian than Greek. He said if Luke's body is a fake relic, it is one of the most accurate fakes on record.

5. The Romanovs

romanovs.jpg

On July 16, 1918, ten Bolshevik revolutionaries shot and speared Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, and their five children: Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana, and Anastasia. The soldiers buried the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. In 1922, a woman named Anna Anderson emerged claiming that she was, in fact, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anderson had previously been institutionalized and attempted suicide (because, she said, no one believed she was Anastasia). Opinions were mixed as to whether Anderson was the real Anastasia, but no one could prove her wrong for much of the 20th century.

In 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, five bodies were discovered and were positively identified through DNA testing of descendants as Romanovs. They compared these results to Anderson, who had died and was cremated; the results proved there was no genetic connection between Anderson and any of the Romanovs.

In July 2007, two bodies were discovered near the Ural Mountains; these remains were badly burned and chemically damaged from Soviet cremation experimentation. Scientists conducted three DNA tests—mitochondrial DNA, autosomal STR, and Y-STR. The mitochondrial DNA proved the children were Czarina Alexandra's; the SRT paternity test proved it was highly likely that the bodies were children of the Czar and Czarina; the Y-STR test was only conducted on Alexei and matched both Nicholas' and Prince Andrew's tests. Only one question remains: whether the girl's body is another of the Grand Duchesses, or Anastasia herself.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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