February 26th, 2013

How Important is DNA to Genealogy? Just Ask the Ancestors of Richard III!

The skeletal remains that were found beneath a parking lot in Leicester, Englandin September, 2012 have been confirmed to be the remains of Richard III, one of England’s most reviled kings. The search for King Richard’s remains was conducted by researchers from the Universityof Leicester, who were led to their possible location by records from a local monastery. The researchers worked from historical maps, and deduced that the remains were located under the small municipal parking lot. Ground-penetrating radar confirmed that there were bones there, and they were consequently excavated.

The amazing part, especially genealogically speaking, is that DNA samples from known living relatives were used to confirm his identity, more than 500 years after his death! One of the relatives that donated DNA was a man descended from King Richard’s sister which produced an almost perfect match. This is conclusive proof of the value of, not only maternal DNA testing, but the entire genealogical process. Richard’s descendants could not have been located for testing if traditional genealogical records did not exist, or if there were not sound genealogical methods and qualified researchers to carry them out.

How DNA Testing Works to Locate Ancestors and Descendants

The samples that the Scientists from theUniversityofLeicesterused to confirm Richard III’s identity were taken from his bones. They performed a maternal DNA test and compared the samples from the bones with the DNA of his known living ancestor, Michael Ibsen, the son of Richard’s sixteenth generation niece. The other donor chose to remain anonymous, but the results were overwhelmingly conclusive.

Maternal DNA or lineage testing allows both males and females to trace their ancestry through the DNA inherited from their mother. The father’s mitochondrial DNA is destroyed at fertilization, and so children inherit only the mother’s mitochondrial DNA. Because of this unique inheritance phenomenon, the maternal link to the past is preserved in both men and women, which inevitably made the son of Richard’s niece, even after 16 generations, an ideal subject.

DNA testing for genealogical purposes can be very valuable to family historians. It can be used to confirm your ethnic or even geographical origins as well as whom you are related to. Genealogy will never rely solely on DNA testing, without the written records, King Richard’s descendants could not have been found or confirmed, nor would the team of researchers from theUniversityofLeicesterhave known where to look for his remains.

Besides, one of the most rewarding aspects of an ancestor search is locating their records and enjoying a bit of historical nostalgia along the way. DNA research and modern DNA testing will never take the place of finding a love letter that your great-great-grandmother wrote to your great-great-grandfather, but it can help you to locate relatives you didn’t know you had. If you’d like to know more about the mitochondrial DNA testing the researchers used, please read our article Understanding Mitochondrial DNA Ancestry Tests