The discovery of the presumably lost grave of the controversial English king Richard III in Leicester (U.K.) was one of the most important archaeological achievements of the last decennium. The skeleton was identified beyond reasonable doubt, mainly by the match of mitochondrial DNA to that of living maternal relatives, along with the specific archaeological context. Since the genetic genealogical analysis only involved the DNA sequences of a single 15th century individual and a few reference persons, biologists might consider this investigation a mere curiosity. This mini-review shows that the unique context of a historical king’s DNA also has relevance for biological research per se - in addition to the more obvious historical, societal and educational value. In the first place, the historical identification appeared to be a renewed forensic case realising a conservative statement with statistical power based on genetic and non-genetic data, including discordant elements. Secondly, the observation of historical non-paternity events within Richard III’s patrilineage has given rise to new research questions about potential factors influencing the extra-pair paternity rate in humans and the importance of biological relatedness for the legal recognition of a child in the past. Thirdly, the identification of a named and dated skeleton with the known historical context serves as a reference for bioarchaeological investigations and studies on the spatio-temporal distribution of particular genetic variance. Finally, the Richard III case revealed privacy issues for living relatives which appear to be inherent to any publication of genetic genealogical data.
Biochem Soc Trans 2018 46:1013-1020