Richard III Geneticist leads DNA search to identify the man who shaped early America

The University of Leicester geneticist who led the DNA identification of the ‘The King under the car park’ –Richard III – has been called upon to help identify the headless remains believed to be those of a man ‘who shaped early America’.

Professor Turi King, Professor of Public Engagement and Reader in Genetics and Archaeology at Leicester, is in the US where they believe they have unearthed the remains of Sir George Yeardley.

Sir George, who was born in Surrey, was the colonial governor who presided over the first representative assembly in the western hemisphere. Popularised by the Sky One series Jamestown, Sir George  (1587–1627) was Governor of Virginia. Jamestown was the first permanent British colony in America and its survival is attributed largely to Sir George Yeardley.

For nearly two years Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have been excavating the site of the 1617 church in the town and have unearthed portions of its original foundations and flooring. Now, they have turned their attention to one of the most distinctive and earliest surviving burials within the church.

Centrally located in what would have been the main aisle of the church, this grave is primarily undisturbed and significantly larger than most other burials found at Jamestown. Its prestigious location and other unique qualities lead Jamestown archaeologists to believe that they have found Sir George Yeardley.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists are working alongside experts from across the globe to analyse the findings. In addition to Turi King from the University of Leicester, the team includes Ground Penetrating Radar specialists; the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Skeletal Biology Program team; and dental specialists Dr. Josh Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University and Dr. Martin Levin of the University of Pennsylvania.

Over the next several months this team will use the latest, cutting-edge technologies to try to identify who is buried in the grave in the aisle.

Professor King said: “It’s a tremendous honour to be involved in the Jamestown Rediscovery project and hopefully to help identify the putative remains of Sir George Yeardley.

“Jamestown is one of the most famous archaeological sites in US history and Yeardley oversaw the first representative Virginia General Assembly. It’s considered to be the birthplace of American democracy.

“Just as in the King Richard III case, I hope to extract DNA from the remains and match against living relatives as part of the evidence to identify these being the remains of one of the founding fathers of American democracy.”

Archaeologists discovered that the skull was missing from the remains- but is now thought to be an extra partial skull recovered from a later burial which cut through the putative grave of Sir George. Teeth have been discovered in this new grave. Professor King will use DNA analysis to confirm that the skull found earlier belongs to this newly-found set of remains by comparing with the teeth.  Plaque from the teeth can be examined for clues on diet and bacteria.

Should DNA be extracted from the skeleton this will need to be checked against living day distant relatives of Yeardley or order to see whether their DNA matches that retrieved from the skeleton. Genealogical work already undertaken by the team in Jamestown will be used by Professor Kevin Schürer from the University of Leicester to help search for appropriately related distant relatives of Yeardley. Professor Schürer successfully led the genealogical research that helped confirm the identity of the remains of Richard III using similar a similar approach.

He said: “The Jamestown Rediscover project is absolutely fascinating and absorbing, especially given the settlement’s place in north America and for that matter global history.”

“It will be a privilege to work with such a great team. Searching for particular relatives who inherited certain DNA types over many generations is always a challenge, but I hope that we can track down the necessary present-day distant relatives.”

“Sir George Yeardley was a central figure in the development of what was to become the United States of America and so should we be able to positively identify the skeleton, this would be a tremendous achievement”.

The skeletal remains will undergo additional skeletal analysis at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History once excavation is complete. The biological profile of every skeleton is unique and the Smithsonian team reads the clues “written” in the bones for information on sex, age, health, activities in life, and sometimes the cause of death. The skeletal remains will also be tested chemically by other labs to look at the lead levels and carbon isotope ratios, which can indicate the individual’s status and origin.

All of the cranial fragments will be imaged using micro-CT (micro computed tomography) scanning to create 3D representations. If enough of the skull survives, it will be used as the basis for a facial reconstruction.

After all analyses are completed, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists plan to reinter the remains, giving proper recognition to this individual who has been lost to history for centuries.