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DNA unmasks Czech past

Prague Castle bones could reveal medieval dynasty descendants
April 25, 2007

A research project at Prague Castle is mapping the DNA of centuries-old Bohemian rulers with the aim of bringing Czech history “closer to the people,” the project’s lead researcher says. In various locations around the castle — such as St. Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George and the destroyed Church of Our Lady — are buried the ancient remains of the Czech Přemyslid dynasty, some of them more than a millennium old.

Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists, historians and forensic scientists began working on the Archeosteon, or ancient bone, project, extracting DNA from these bones and creating a “genetic genealogy,” forensics expert Dr. Daniel Vaněk says.“There are a lot of unknowns about these people,” he says. “Anthropologists can estimate age and sex, that’s all. But with DNA you can have a complete profile.” Vaněk presented the results of the project’s first stage at a Prague conference of the Czechoslovak Society for Forensic Genetics April 16–17.

While there are still years of work ahead, the research has already borne fruit, he says.“The results were great,” he says. Though at one time DNA could only be extracted from substances like blood or saliva, his team has had success with these ancient Přemyslid skeletons. “We’ve developed a very robust method of extracting DNA from bone samples.”

Ancient rulers

Credited as the founders of Czech statehood, the Přemyslid dynasty ruled over Bohemia, and at times parts of modern-day Poland, from the ninth century until 1306.

According to legend, the dynasty is descended from the mythical princess Libuše, who foretold the founding of Prague during a vision. Libuše married Přemysl, and their future descendants were named the Přemyslids. “The people buried at Prague Castle are very important for Czech history [but] we know only a little about them,” says Dr. Milena Bravermanová, an archaeologist at the castle who helped excavate the burial sites. “We have graves, we have skeletons, but we don’t know who these people were.” “For us, it’s very important to know as much as possible about … our past.

We hope the DNA research will help us do that,” she says.Bravermanová has spent years painstakingly excavating the castle’s graves. Using brushes and special tools to carefully sweep away centuries of dirt, she and her team unearthed the bones, sometimes discovering things such as knives, jewelry or fragments of clothing along with the remains.

From there, Vaněk and his researchers took samples of the bones and laboriously extracted DNA samples. First, a piece of the bone is carefully cut using power tools, he says. The bone is soaked to remove the many “inhibitor enzymes” that impede DNA extraction. The bones are ground to a fine powder, and DNA is then amplified using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.It’s the same process Vaněk used on bones from mass graves around Kosovo, where he aided in the prosecution of war crimes. It’s also the technique he uses to help Czech police crack unsolved homicides.

U.S. authorities, too, use the process to identify remains of soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam. With bones younger than 10 years, DNA can be extracted in under a week, he says. With ancient material such as that found at Prague Castle, “it takes months, if you’re lucky.”His team has come out lucky.

Using the DNA Vaněk has extracted from the Prague Castle bones, Archeosteon researchers hope to firm up their understanding of the Přemyslid history and family tree. It may even be possible to eventually imagine these nobles’ appearances, including hair and eye color, Vaněk says. “The science is running quickly. We have new techniques nearly every month,” he says. “But we don’t want to push it. The main goal is identification [and] to answer historical questions. And when we release our methods, we can help other archaeo-geneticists all over the world.”

A genetic map

Another question that could be answered by the project is whether the Přemyslids really died out.Though the royal line is said to have ended in 1306 with the murder of King Wenceslas III, historians have reason to believe Přemyslid descendants are still walking the Czech lands today.“We know that, from the 11th century, the dynasty spread very much,” Bravermanová says. “Because of this, it’s possible that some descendants are still alive. But we have a lot of years for which we know nothing. It’s possible that the DNA can help us.

”By testing “as many Czech males as possible” and creating a database of their Y-chromosome material, Vaněk says, researchers may eventually be able to trace today’s Czech population all the way back to Přemyslids, and further. “The information stored on the male Y chromosome is transferred down through the generations. You can even trace our roots down to Africa, to Adam,” he says.“It’s the mission of every scientist to find the answers to questions, and there are still a lot of unknowns about the Přemyslid dynasty.”

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