For years, when museums, textbooks or other outlets attempted to illustrate what a particular ancient human skeleton would have looked like in the flesh, their method was admittedly unscientific—they basically had to make an educated guess.
Now, though, a group of researchers from Poland and the Netherlands has provided a remarkable new option, described in an article they published in the journal Investigative Genetics on Sunday. By adapting DNA analysis methods originally developed for forensic investigations, they’ve been able to determine the hair and eye color of humans who lived as long as 800 years ago.
The team’s method examines 24 locations in the human genome that vary between individuals and play a role in determining hair and eye color. Although this DNA degrades over time, the system is sensitive enough to generate this information from genetic samples—taken either from teeth or bones—that are several centuries old (although the most degraded samples can provide information for eye color only).
As a proof of concept, the team performed the analysis for a number of people whose eye and hair color we already know. Among others, they tested the DNA of Władysław Sikorski, a former Prime Minister of Poland who died in a 1943 plane crash, and determined that Sikorski had blue eyes and blonde hair, which correctly matches color photographs.
But the more useful application of the new method is providing new information. “This system can be used to solve historical controversies where colour photographs or other records are missing,” co-author Manfred Kayser, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said in a statement.
For example, in the paper, the researchers analyzed the hair and eye color for a female skeleton buried in the crypt of a Benedictine Abbey near Kraków, Poland, sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries. The skeleton had been of interest to archaeologists for some time, since male monks were typically the only people buried in the crypt. The team’s analysis showed that she had brown eyes and dark blond or brown hair.
The team is not sure yet just how old a skeleton has to be for its DNA to be degraded beyond use—the woman buried in the crypt was the oldest one tested—so it’s conceivable that it might even work for individuals who’ve been in the ground for more than a millenium. The researchers suggest this sort of analysis could soon become part of a standard anthropological toolkit for evaluating human remains.