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.

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