Bone, hair, teeth and blood

How did they get that DNA sample anyway?

It’s DNA Sunday here at The Legal Genealogist, and reading about all those old cool DNA results from Neanderthals and other ancient folks (and beasts) got me to wondering: how in the world did the scientists get the DNA to test anyway?

Titus Geer Simons

Despite the number of people who act in a way that we describe them as Neanderthals, there aren’t any of ‘em roaming the streets today. And, last I checked, there weren’t any Ice Age folks or woolly mammoths or any one of a number of other people and critters whose DNA has been tested.

So… what did they use? Where did they get the samples?

In the case of the Neanderthals, they got it out of 40,000-year-old bones: three found in the Vindiga Cave in Croatia and another three bones from other sites.1

The same was true for the mitochondrial DNA extracted from Ötzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old remains were found in the Italian Ötztal Alps. The sample was obtained from a fragment of hipbone.2

DNA can also be extracted from ancient hair, as it was in the case of a hairball believed to have belonged to a Saddaq, one of the earliest known natives of Greenland, about 4,000 years ago.

And hair was used to get mitochondrial DNA even from samples from woolly mammoths kept indoors at room temperature for decades.3

In fact, hair is considered a prime find for DNA testing purposes, because it often lacks the contamination from bacteria and other substances found in bones or skin.4

Teeth have also been used,5 though contamination is an issue.6

And now scientists are going after DNA from blood — blood left on the uniform of a New-Englander-turned-Canadian soldier, fighting for the British in the War of 1812, who was badly injured at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane 25 July 1814.

Fought near Niagara Falls, the battle was crucial for the British: they needed to hold the Americans, who had been active and successful in several engageements starting early in July. They had taken Fort Erie, won the Battle of Chippawa and forced the British to retreat to Fort George.7

And hold the Americans they did. At first it seemed this battle too would go for the Americans. British Major General Phineas Riall — who’d come out on the losing end at Chippawa — thought he was facing a superior force and started to order a retreat. But the British Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, countermanded those orders and the stage was set. Skirmishes, attacks and counterattacks, close-up almost hand-to-hand fighting failed to move the British from the field. Unable to advance, the Americans fell back to Fort Erie.8

Both sides suffered serious losses. American losses were reported at 171 dead, 572 wounded and 110 missing and British losses at 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 prisoners.9

Particularly hard hit on both sides was the officer corps. And one of the officers wounded on the British side was a man named Titus Geer Simons.

Titus’ father, also named Titus, had been a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, and the son “a mere lad … was given a musket in the ranks of his father’s corps.”10 Titus the son then went on to his own distinguished career in the War of 1812.

Initially he served with the 2nd York, then with the militia, then again by June 1814 with the 2nd York, and “(a)t Lundy’s Lane Major Simons commanded the whole of the 2nd York Militia, present at that action, until severely wounded… Three grape shot lodged in Major Simons’ sword arm in the conflict. Thus ended his career of action in the war.”11

The officer’s coat that Simons wore in that battle was donated by his family to the Hamilton, Ontario, Military Museum; it’s on permanent display there and shows the holes where Simons was shot. It’s said that the entire right side of the jacket was drenched in blood. And that’s where the DNA comes in — and, they hope, will come from.

A lab from Lakehead University at Thunder Bay, Ontario, is going to try to remove the biologic material — the blood — from the coat, extract DNA from it, and test that DNA against the DNA of living descendants of Titus Geer Simons. An article in the Hamilton Spectator last week described the process and what the Military Museum hopes to achieve: as part of a new exhibit on the War of 1812, the Museum hopes “to create blood ties between that coat, the person who lived 200 years ago and the modern descendants.”12

Genealogical reports are that Titus Geer Simons only left daughters.13 That means they can’t use his Y-DNA (passed only from father to son) and they can’t use his mitochondrial DNA (his daughters would have gotten their mitochondrial DNA from their mother and not from their father). So what this lab has to be going for is autosomal DNA.

Now how cool is that? — the very first time a blood sample from the war of 1812 will be used for an autosomal DNA test!

Can’t wait to hear if they succeed…


SOURCES

  1. Tim Stephens, Staff Writer, “Neanderthal genome yields insights into human evolution and evidence of interbreeding,” posted 6 May 2010, University of California: Santa Cruz News (http://news.ucsc.edu : accessed 26 May 2012).
  2. Jennie Cohen, “Iceman Frozen for Millennia Had Lyme Disease, Clogged Arteries & Sardinian Relatives,” History in the Headlines, 5 Mar 2012, History.com (http://www.history.com : accessed 26 May 2012).
  3. Melissa Lee Phillips, “Hair yields ancient DNA,” The Scientist (http://classic.the-scientist.com : accessed 26 May 2012).
  4. Brian Handwerk, “Face of Ancient Human Drawn From Hair’s DNA,” National Geographic News, 10 Feb 2010 (http://news.nationalgeographic.com : accessed 26 May 2012).
  5. Cheryl Jones, “Researchers to drill for ancient DNA in ‘hobbit’ tooth,” Scientific American, 5 Jan 2011 (http://www.scientificamerican.com : accessed 26 May 2012).
  6. See Dienekes Pontikos, “DNA contamination of ancient teeth,” Dienekes Anthropology Blog, posted 5 Jul 2006 (http://dienekes.blogspot.com/ : accessed 26 May 2012).
  7. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Battle of Lundy’s Lane,” rev. 14 May 2012.
  8. Ibid.
  9. J. Rickard, “Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 25 July 1814,” History of War (http://www.historyofwar.org : accessed 26 May 2012).
  10. Henry Hyndman Robertson, Titus Simons, Quartermaster, 1777-1812: Transactions of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Ontario (Hamilton, Ontario: p.p., 1903); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 26 May 2012), 8.
  11. Ibid., 9-10.
  12. Mark McNeil, “War of 1812: Blood ties, DNA testing aims to link blood on 200-year-old jacket to modern-day descendant,” Hamilton Spectator, 17 May 2012 (http://www.thespec.com : accessed 26 May 2012).
  13. Ibid.
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6 Responses to Bone, hair, teeth and blood

  1. Brenda says:

    And his descendant Martha can hardly wait, too!

  2. Celia Lewis says:

    Wow – definitely a Wow idea! Looking forward to the results when they’re completed/published. Fascinating post, Judy.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Isn’t this just about the neatest thing you’ve ever seen? I sure hope they get enough to do the testing!

  3. Jamie Kracko says:

    Are they still looking for decendents? I’m one of them and this would be so cool!

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