A Riddle, Wrapped in a Genome

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: August 2017
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It began, as many Sherlock Holmes mysteries do, with a letter. Arizona State University bioarchaeologist Christopher Stojanowski was struck by the ornate letterhead and the sender’s more ornate title: Father Conrad Harkins, Vice Postulator for the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs. Then the facts of the case leapt off the paper: “priest,” “skull,” “beheaded,” “scalped.” 

Harkins explained he was on a mission to canonize Fray Pedro de Corpa and his fellow Franciscan missionaries, who were killed by Guale Indians in Georgia in 1597. A museum was displaying a partial skull believed to be de Corpa’s. Could Stojanowski confirm the cranium’s identity?

“I grew up Catholic, and to have this come in, there was this real, instant connection to this history,” says Stojanowski.

Thus began more than a decade of sleuthing. It culminated in the 2017 book Studies in Forensic Biohistory, co-written and edited by Stojanowski and featuring chapters by two other ASU scientists spearheading this burgeoning field. One of those scientists, Regent’s Professor Jane Buikstra, coined the term biohistory. The field focuses on studying human remains to answer questions about famous people or events. Think Jesse James, the Donner Party and Richard III. People who do biohistory come from fields including forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology and medicine. Their techniques are equally wide-ranging, and often bizarre. 

Take the case of the Georgian skull. Stojanowski examined and digitized the skull, then manually entered more than 5,000 measurement records from various colonial periods for comparison. He determined it was a 40-ish-year-old male of European ancestry who suffered a violent death. Unusually, the skull’s sutures were closed, warping the cranium. Stojanowski sifted through historical records to see if anyone had called the priest, say, Pedro Twisted Face. No go.

Biohistory Mysteries
Was Abraham Lincoln’s lankiness caused by genetic connective tissue disorder Marfan syndrome? 
Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum possesses a pillowcase smeared with Lincoln’s blood, but won’t allow genetic testing.

Were the executed Romanovs buried in an unmarked grave found by amateur sleuths?
The skulls were glued together. DNA testing confirmed it was Czar Nicholas II and family.

Both the Dominican Republic and Spain claim to have Christopher Columbus’ corpse. who has it?
Scientists compared DNA from the remains in Spain to DNA from Columbus’ brother. It matched. The Dominicans still say they have Columbus, and they may be right, since Spain’s bones are incomplete, and Columbus traveled almost as widely post-mortem.

He researched what type of reed was used to scalp victims in 16th century Georgia. He attempted DNA analysis, but it had decayed. He extracted stable isotopes to estimate whether the man had eaten an Old World or New World diet. He sent soil from the ear canal to a geologist, who confirmed the dirt was likely Georgian and found lice carcasses. Another specialist determined the lice had fed off the man while he was alive. Stojanowski hoped blood containing the man’s DNA could be extracted from the lice stomachs. He sent them to a louse morphologist, who sadly had a breakdown and went MIA, along with the carcasses. 

Stojanowski considered impaling pig skulls to determine what fractures form when you drive a spear through a decapitated head, but thought that was taking it a bit far. He asked himself, “‘What is driving me to do this? There isn’t really a professional gain.’ And I realized I just wanted to know.”

He isn’t the only one obsessed. In the book, ASU associate professor Richard Toon devotes a chapter to Richard III, whose scoliotic skeleton was unearthed from a parking lot in Leicester, England, in 2012. The media and public were titillated by the investigation: Was his arm withered? Which weapon delivered the death blow? Was he too handsome to be a villain? Leicester’s tourism industry spiked by £482 million in one year as history buffs flocked to the site. 

“There’s this whole story that comes out of these little fragments,” Stojanowski says. “I think people like developing connections to these small and larger narratives. It’s kind of what life is, really: making connections with people and thinking about that.”

But biohistory unearths ethical issues, as Buikstra writes. Do dead bodies have personhood and rights? Who gives a scientist permission to delve into a corpse’s past? What are the implications for descendants?
Stojanowski considered this while investigating the skull, which he doesn’t think is de Corpa’s. But he isn’t sure. And that sparks questions about who the man really was. Seen in that light, biohistory could give a person, and their story, a second life. “Do you want to be an anonymous body in the ground?” Stojanowski asks. “Or do you want someone at some time to rediscover who you were? That’s the ultimate question.”