Like many in the funeral business or funeral related businesses, Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory has followed the publicity around DNA. Identification of loved ones is obviously an overwhelmingly important issue and DNA is a prime key.
It’s safe to say that no one ever expected the science of DNA to develop to the point that it is today — the FBI recently cracked the oldest cold case imaginable!
It wasn’t collected related to a cremation or an ordinary burial: rather it was identifying a 4,000 year old mummy!
As many of you know, mummification is a process that dates back to ancient Egypt.
Because of religious beliefs, preserving the body was significant: due essentially to what might be viewed as resurrection, it was felt that the cadaver should be kept in proper form so that the three-part soul could continue its journey.
The mummification itself could take up to 70 days and was anything but inexpensive.
Pharaohs and other wealthy nobles were the chief recipients — and, as we know, they were then laid to rest in elaborate tombs. Those of lesser means were often dried with salt or sodium carbonate and wrapped simply in cloth.
Through the centuries, archaeologists and other scientists have been able to mine these extraordinarily well preserved bodies for vast amounts of information. Even unlocking the keys to the mummification process itself has been a rewarding challenge.
Meanwhile, DNA has been on a later maturing, but still parallel track. Some date this science to Charles Darwin’s notions, but it wasn’t until 1866 when Gregor Mendel, working with pea plants, was able to shed light on genetics. He labeled the terms dominant and recessive, and, in general, opened the door to where we are today. Mendel has now been dubbed “the father of genetics.”
Finally, in 1944, Oswald Avery posited that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was the transforming agent in a series of scientific experiments related to the cause of pneumonia. Scientists were literally off to the races from that point.
By the 1970’s, research had made significant advances, and in the mid-1980’s, Alec Jeffreys in England tied Colin Pitchfork to the crime of murder, an event which changed the way forensic investigation is conducted.
But even at that date, the relationship between mummies and DNA was considered to be problematic. The theory was that dry climates and the chemicals used by Egyptians neutralized to a large extent the value of testing these deceased subjects.
By last year, it was conclusively established by reputable research that the power of DNA sampling could produce valid results on mummies that date back thousands of years. Under the leadership of Johannes Krause, using what was thought to be next generation techniques, recovered accurate samples.
Now to the case of the tomb of an ancient Egyptian governor, Djehutynakht and his wife. American archaeologists found their final resting spot in 1915: quite unfortunately, it had been raided and a decapitated head was located therein. Nearby was a headless torso. The tomb was in disarray.
The identity questions have been simmering since then. Finally, in 2009, the FBI was called upon for resolution. Talk about a cold case — this one topped them all.
A forensic scientist with the bureau, Dr. Odile Loreille, along with a team, were able to extract enough DNA from a molar to determine that that the head belonged to the governor himself; it appears that he was decapitated after death. This is truly a groundbreaking denouement.
Incidentally, Dr. Loreille is no stranger to head-scratching historical mysteries: she has worked on Titanic victims, as well as two of the Romanov children who were murdered as part of the Russian revolution.
Case closed. One suspects that, even with these advances, the fantastic scope of DNA work is still in its infancy.