Eli5 How do scientists comfirm an identity of an ancient skeleton?


I just watched a documentary about how King Richard III was found and I was wondering like how do they know that the skeleton is him?
It’s not like there are DNA samples to compare with.
Do they just rely on recorded documents or they use other kinds of methods?

In: Other

I think they either compared the DNA from one of his known descendants or they took samples from his dead relatives. They were royals so it’s known where they were buried.

There are actually DNA samples to compare it to, we have DNA samples from relatives and are able to compare them to determine if there is a relation.

In the case of Richard the 3rd, you’re helped in that he was deformed with severe scoliosis (a), have genetic samples of relatives (b), and use the bones to estimate the age at death (C), and can use anthropological dating techniques to get a rough date of the death (d).

So in this case it’s a bit, how many people were buried in that friary, the same year, at the same age, who were related to royalty, had that same uncommon and extremely noticeable deformation…

Well Richard III isn’t exactly *ancient*, he was buried in 1485. That’s well into the era of record keeping and map making, and so the location and details of his death and burial were preserved.

He was killed in battle in 1485 and buried beneath a monastery. Researchers found the location of the monastery with old maps and notes, and uncovered a 30-something male skeleton with severe combat injuries.

To confirm that it’s him, they did do a DNA sample on the remains – specifically a mitochondrial DNA sample since that passes directly from mother to child unchanged with each generation.

That means that a string of daughters that can trace back to Richard’s mother would have identical mitochondrial DNA.

Since nobility were sticklers about tracing ancestry, this information isn’t that hard to dig up and they were able to match his DNA with modern descendants of his mother.

They dont for sure. In the case of Richard III it is very likely that that’s him, but by not 100% certain.

The skeleton was from the right period, of a human male the correct age(-ish), with death wounds matching what we know of Richard III. It also shows signs of scoliosis, which is a big curve in the spine.

The strongest evidence comes from a mitochondrial DNA test, this kind of DNA is passed down only from your mother so it’s easier to follow a family tree and matches 2 living people.

The main thing was that his body was where they expected it to be, because there were good records of his burial, and this tends to be how ancient remains are identified. If you find a random skeleton in a field, that’s probably never going to be identified.