DNA Evidence Could Identify The Crew From The Lost Franklin Expedition

Old illustration of Captain Sir John Franklin's North Arctic exploration. Created by Grandsire and Laly, published on Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1860. Marzolino/Shutterstock

Franklin’s "lost expedition" is one of the strangest stories from the 19th-century age of exploration. Shrouded in legend and fanciful rumors, there have been collective efforts among scientists, archeologists, historians, and other explorers to get to the bottom of this doomed naval expedition for over 150 years.

Now, for the first time, researchers have carried out genetic analysis of skeletal remains found around the icy Canadian Arctic Archipelago and identified 24 crew members from the expedition. Their study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Here’s how the whole story started. In 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set off from England under the control of Captain Sir John Franklin in an attempt to navigate the notoriously tricky Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.

Like all great tales, something went terribly wrong. Written letters by Franklin in 1846 explain that the ships had become stuck in the sea ice. Sickness, hypothermia, and starvation set in. Franklin even came to be known as the man who ate his boots in the British press, after rumors he ate his leather shoes to survive.

The last written note from the expedition in April 1848 explains that the remaining crew had abandoned their two ships and desperately started walking towards the mainland. Inuits from the area even reported that the men had resorted to cannibalism. This was later confirmed by cut marks on some of the remains. Not much else was known about the 129 crew until a series of forensics expeditions in 1981 started to find the skeletal remains of the crew frozen in the ice. The lost ships were finally discovered in 2014 and 2016.

This new study has managed to isolate the DNA from 37 bone and tooth samples found on King William Island scattered around numerous different sites, which could help identify who these people were. The location of these sites themselves also gives further confirmation of the paths taken by the crew as they abandoned ship.

Bizarrely, the study found pieces of the same person were “located approximately 160 meters [524 feet] from one another.” This could be due to either carnivorous animal activity, the weather, or – as lead author Douglas Stenton told Live Science – perhaps a botched burial attempted by an early rescue crew.

Four of the samples were also identified as females. This is particularly strange as all the ship’s documentation said there were no women on board and, furthermore, women couldn’t serve in the Royal Navy at this time. While the authors say there is a strong chance that this is incorrect, they also acknowledge there is historical evidence of women sneaking their way onto navy ships by dressing as men. Although they suspect it's unlikely in this case due to “the improbability of so many women serving secretly on this expedition.”

There’s still much more work to be done before we finally get the whole story behind this doomed expedition. Nevertheless, this DNA analysis is a crucial bank of information, which other studies can now draw upon. The study authors even hope to identify the living descendants of the crew. So, if you had a great-great grandfather who mysteriously fell off the radar some 150 years ago, stay tuned.

[H/T: Live Science]

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