The Body of Copernicus Is Identified

The famed astronomer wasn’t always so well known

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You remember Nicolaus Copernicus, right? He’s the 16th-century Polish astronomer who was the first to figure out that earth was not the center of the universe, that the earth and all the other planets orbited the sun. But he wasn’t always so well known. Copernicus worked as a church administrator since astronomy wasn’t a profitable career choice (thus relegated to hobby status). And when he died, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Frombork Cathedral, the church where he worked. A few years ago, though, archaeologists found what they thought were his remains.

When we last left this story, in 2006—in Copernicus Unearthed—a skull, missing the lower jaw, had been found buried near an altar where the astronomer had been known to pray daily. The archaeologists thought this might be our guy. The skull was from a 70-year-old male (which matched the approximate age for Copernicus when he died in 1543) and a forensic reconstruction looked like an older version of the astronomer’s portraits (such as the one on the left). But to confirm that they had indeed found their man, the archaeologists needed to perform a DNA test. The problem? Copernicus had no children and though his uncle was known to be buried in the same cathedral, no one knew where.

Now comes news that the archaeologists found a few hairs in a book Copernicus owned. The archaeologists brought in a geneticist who compared the DNA from the hairs to that found in some bones that accompanied the skull--a vertebra, a tooth and a femur bone. The DNA in two out of four hairs matched the bones. Those archaeologists really did find their guy. Congrats!