When the human remains found aboard the Swedish warship Vasa were revealed, it was initially determined that the skeleton named “G” was a man. New research now shows that the skeleton is actually from a woman.
About thirty people died when the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. We cannot tell who most of them were; Only one person’s name is mentioned in written sources. When the ship was raised in 1961, it was the scene of an extensive archaeological excavation in which many human bones on board were found and examined.
“Through bone analysis, it was possible to find out a lot about these people, such as age, height, and medical history. Osteopaths have recently suspected that G could be female, based on the pelvis. DNA analysis can reveal more,” says Dr. Fred Hooker, Director of Research at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.
Since 2004, the Vasa Museum has collaborated with the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology at Uppsala University in Sweden to investigate all Vasa remains and learn as much as possible about each individual. Initially, the project focused on confirming whether certain bones belonged to specific people. Mary Allen, a professor of forensic genetics, led the work.
“For us, it’s very interesting and challenging to study the skeletons from Vasa. It’s very difficult to extract DNA from bones that have been on the sea floor for 333 years, but it’s not impossible,” says Allen. She continues, “A few years ago, we had indications that the G skeleton was not a man but a woman. Simply put, we didn’t find Y chromosomes in the genetic material of G. But we weren’t sure and wanted to confirm the finding.”
The result has now been confirmed, thanks to a joint study with Dr Kimberly Andreje of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory of the Armed Forces Medical Examiners System (AFMES-AFDIL) in Delaware, US. AFMES-AFDIL is a US Department of Defense laboratory that specializes in DNA testing of human remains from deceased military personnel. This organization created a new testing method to analyze many different genetic variants.
“We took new samples from bones that we had specific questions about. AFMES-AFDIL has now analyzed the samples, and we’ve been able to confirm that G was a woman, thanks to the new test,” says Allen.
For Allen and Andreji, analyzing Vasa’s skeletons is a way to develop their own forensic methods, which can then be used for DNA analysis in criminal investigations or to identify fallen soldiers.
For the Vasa Museum, the results of the DNA analysis are an important puzzle piece in the museum’s search for the people on board the ship. “We want to get as close to these people as possible,” explains Dr. Anna Maria Forsberg, a historian and researcher at the museum. “We knew there were women on the Vasa when it sank, and now we have received confirmation that they are among the remains. I am currently searching for the sailors’ wives, so for To me this is particularly exciting, because they are so often forgotten even though they played such an important role for the Navy.”
More results are expected soon from the new samples. Allen and Andreji will be able to say something about the individuals’ appearance, the color of their hair and eyes, and possibly where their families came from.
“Today we can extract more information from historical DNA than we could previously and the methods are constantly being improved. We can tell whether a person is susceptible to certain diseases, or even very small details, like whether they have freckles and wet or dry earwax,” she says. Allen says.
Vasa Museum researchers are currently studying the skeletons from several points of view, including the personal belongings that were found with them. Eventually the findings will be shown in a museum exhibit and a book about the people who died on the Vasa.
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