Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New DNA evidence on Franklin's sailors

Human jaw from NgLj-2 (courtesy Margaret Bertulli)
It's perhaps not unexpected that, just as news stories about the machinations over 2016 permits for Franklin searches have been gaining widespread attention, that a new study by a key group of land archaeologists has made its appearance, and that Doug Stenton is its lead author. We've known for some time that DNA analysis was contemplated for human skeletal remains -- the possibility was mentioned in an earlier article co-authored by Stenton on the facial reconstructions of two skulls from among these bones, and Stenton talked publicly about this aspect of his work at the Royal Ontario Museum last year. And yet now that the initial article is out, there are a number of surprises -- some small, some large -- about what this new evidence reveals. Even though no matches have as yet been made with living descendants of Franklin's men, the DNA results -- including samples from two hitherto untouched sites -- are pretty remarkable. The world press, perhaps predictably, has seized upon the fact that four samples came back with values consistent as female, one of them from a mandible collected at NgLj-2 much like the one shown here. Despite the caution in the paper that these results were preliminary, and in two of the four instances counterindicated by other factors, the ever-reliable Daily Mail has come out with a headline Mystery of the Doomed Franklin Expedition Deepens: Some of the sailors were WOMEN.

But it's the other revelations of the study that are far more significant in terms of our understanding of the last days of Franklin's men. For one, it reveals that in 2016, work was done both at Booth Point (NcLa-1) and on the Todd Islets (NcLa-5), two sites that many Franklin scholars (myself included) had long urged be examined. The archaeological work itself received no public notice, and thus this paper is the first indication it was undertaken. In addition to these new sites, 32 skeletal elements from Erebus Bay sites were brought back from the cairn there by Doug Stenton and used as sources for DNA samples; the results increased the (minimum) number of distinct individuals represented at NgLj-2 from the original range of 8-11 to 13, along with 10 further distinct individuals at nearby sites -- a significant difference. We must now regard Erebus bay as a site from which a substantial percentage of Franklin's men -- nearly 18% -- never escaped. Beyond that, the Booth Point/Todd Islets site yielded a reading of one individual at the former, and two at the latter (where five individuals had previously been reported, based on the number of skulls).

But even as this evidence brings us much fresh insight, it also reminds us of how new knowledge connects with old. The study observes that, at the Todd Islets site, human bones were "commingled with a similar number of caribou bones." But this is not a surprise; as I mention on page 73 of my book, the Inuktitut name of the place -- qiunak  -- means "the place one can starve to death," but according to local tradition the ones whose starvation gave the place its name were caribou, not men.

It's to be hoped that all this valuable DNA data will soon be able to be compared with samples from living descendants, direct or collateral, to see whether a positive identification can be made. I know that, both in the UK and around the world, there have been efforts to help locate such individuals, and there is generally an eagerness to come forward among them. I'm sure that Doug Stenton and his colleagues are already following up on this, and hope and expect that in the course of their search, resources such as the "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" Facebook page -- whose members include folks with names like Goodsir, Crozier, Collins, and Hodgson -- may help expedite it.


  1. If some of the DNA results came out as female, I think that a comparison to the DNA of present day female Inuit may be in order. It may well be that some female Inuit joined the Franklin camp at Booth Point, and when times got real tough- died along with their English companions.

  2. When I read the paper I thought that there were two main evidentiary points.

    1. The minimum number of casualties at Erebus Bay was so significantly increased, attesting that this was a major locus of the tragedy and not, as usually treated as a site where two boats and a few individuals died.

    2. That the skull first discovered by Marg Bertulli at Utjulik in 1997, and intially thought to possibly be Caucasian, turned out to be of an Inuk. For twenty years this anomalous skull was thought to be a possible pointer to the shipwreck, which was eventually found nearby, but it seems to have been only a coincidence.

    And the paper makes a convincing case that the "female" results were unlikely false positives - the media fascination aside.


    1. Hi Dave,

      Yes, I agree -- the Erebus Bay casualty numbers are pretty significant. It's disappointing about the other skull, but having a clearer picture is certainly worth it.

  3. If I could write fiction, there is probably a great story to be told about female sailors aboard the ships! While the tests may have been inconclusive, given all we've learned about this expedition, would anything surprise us at this point?
    It is good to see field research is continuing. Amazing how something new and fascinating always seems to turn up!