DNA Could Identify the Sailors (Including Women) of the Doomed Franklin Expedition

New analysis on bone and and tooth fragments will allow researchers to learn more about the ill-fated crew

Terror and Erebus
Wikimedia Commons

Researchers recently extracted DNA from the remains of 24 sailors from the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, reports Megan Gannon at LiveScience. The new DNA database will allow the team to learn more about the sailors and possibly identify the remains by connecting them to living descendants.

The Franklin Expedition set sail from the United Kingdom in 1845 with a crew of 134 sailors aboard two ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror. They headed to Arctic Canada to look for the fabled route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But by 1846, Franklin and his 129 crewmembers (five sailors had earlier been discharged and sent back home) were iced in. Though the expedition was stocked with enough food to last for several years, a note discovered over a decade later indicated that Franklin and 23 crew members died of unknown causes by 1847. The other 105 sailors abandoned the ships in 1848. None of them survived.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers started finding remains of the sailors, reports Gannon. Corpses were found on Beechey Island and remains of other individuals were found at various sites. According to the study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Nunavut's Department of Culture and Heritage conducted DNA testing on 39 bone and teeth fragments from around Erebus Bay as well as samples from Booth Point, King William Island, Todd Island as well as Wilmot and Crampton Bay. The were able to get results from 37 of the fragments, determining that they came from 24 different individuals.

One of the most interesting findings was that four of the remains may have come from European women, which is surprising since the crew was reported as all male. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the remains came from local Inuit women. While degraded DNA can give false female readings, the researchers say it’s not out of the realm of possibility that women were on the expedition and that there are records of women sneaking onboard British ships. “Some of these women were smuggled onboard [the] ship, and others disguised themselves as men and worked alongside the crew for months or years before being detected or intentionally revealing themselves to be female,” they write in the study.

They hope that the DNA will allow them to positively identify some of the remains. “We have been in touch with several descendants who have expressed interest in participating in further research,” Douglas Stenton, lead author of the study, tells Gannon. “We hope that the publication of our initial study will encourage other descendants to also consider participating.”

These findings are part of a renaissance of Franklin Expedition discoveries taking place recently, which are finally piecing together what went so wrong. In 2014, after 180 years of of looking, searchers found the shipwreck of the Erebus and last September they located the Terror. A study released in December which examined the toenails of one of the mummies found on Beechey Island showed that he suffered from a zinc deficiency, which may mean the canned food onboard the ships spoiled or the crew was unable to find fresh meat in the Arctic.

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