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DNA of Long-Dead 19th Century Sailors Could Help Identify Doomed Crew of the Franklin Expedition

May 01, 2017 05:57 AM EDT
Franklin expedition
Two ships sailed, zero returned and only a tragic tale of cannibalism drifted back to shore.
(Photo : Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Franklin Expedition is considered one of the worst tragedies in the history of polar exploration, a journey that eventually ended in disaster, death and even cannibalism. Led by Sir John Franklin, two ships in search of the fabled Northwest Passage found themselves trapped in the ice of the Canadian Arctic in 1846.

According to a report from Live Science, the last communication from the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror came from near King William Island. A note from April 1848 revealed that the surviving sailors were planning to leave the two ships and trek south for a trading post on the mainland. Without food and birds and fishes scarce, all of the men died along the way.

During the last century, the Franklin Expedition fascinated the world with its mystery and tragedy. Remains and artifacts have been unearthed along the route that the men supposedly took, and public interest haven't waned. Just last year, evidence emerged of cannibalism taking place during their unsuccessful attempt to reach the trading post.

Now, scientists have taken a look at the genetic data of the remains of the men who abandoned the ships. Nunavut's Department of Culture and Heritage's Douglas Stenton led the team that analyzed 37 bone and teeth samples belonging to 24 different sailors in the Franklin Expedition.

Bones from the same individual were even found in sites that are about a mile apart, which the researchers attributed to a search party finding some of the remains and burying them in a new location.

One of the most interesting discoveries by Stenton and his colleagues are the presence of women among the remains. While the team believed its likely that ancient DNA tests can result in false female identifications due to a tendency not to amplify the Y chromosome, women also used to pretend to be men to be allowed in the Royal Navy.

"Some of these women were smuggled onboard [the] ship, and others disguised themselves as men and worked alongside the crew for months or years before being detected or intentionally revealing themselves to be female," the authors explained.

The group is hoping that their database will help uncover more details about the Franklin Expedition as well as identify the different crew members of the failed ships.

The research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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