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Lost Franklin Expedition ship HMS Terror found

DNA of long-dead sailors may solve great Canadian mystery

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 11:51 AM - Long after the doomed Franklin Expedition came to its fated end, we're a little closer to identifying the remains of some of the sailors who perished along with their captain.

John Franklin set out for the Northwest Passage in 1845, with 129 men aboard his ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Now, scientists say they've put together DNA profiles from the remains of some of the lost crew, a crucial step toward determining who they were.

"The Franklin Expedition DNA database resulting from this study represents 24 individuals and provides a foundation for future research, including the possible identification of some of the individuals through comparison with modern DNA from living descendants of members of the expedition," the researchers say in their paper, published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

RELATED: Ice divers prepare to scour the wreck of Erebus.

Though Erebus was not found until 2014, and Terror not until last year, subsequent expeditions have found plenty of artifacts left by the ill-fated crew, along with human remains. Several bodies have been found, including three who were buried on Beechey Island by the crew. 

Those bodies were later exhumed, with permission, and autopsies revealed high instances of scurvy and lead poisoning, from the soldering on food tins, that would have badly affected the crew's health in the long run.

For the latest research, the scientists collected 39 bone and tooth fragments from eight different locations around the Arctic where the two ships were known to have ranged before becoming trapped in ice in 1846. Analysis eventually produced 24 DNA profiles.

As the researchers point out, the DNA itself can't give us names, but it can provide a point of comparison if today's descendants of the crew can be found and matched.

Franklin himself died in 1847, according to a note left by one crewman. Another note spoke of a plan to walk to the mainland of what is now Nunavut in April 1848. After that, the survivors' fate is unknown.

SOURCE: Journal of Archaeological Science

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