In its latest contribution to historical anthropology, genetic sequencing has shown that a lavishly decorated gourd said to contain the blood of the French King Louis XVI does not, very likely, bear the DNA of France's final monarch.
Helas! Can no one -- not even the ancient purveyors of gruesome relics, amulets and royal remains -- be trusted? Apparently not, as historians, aided by the burgeoning science of genetic analysis, are learning.
Louis XVI's death, after an 18-year reign and a fateful flight from French revolutionaries, came by guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793, and brought an end to more than 1,000 years of French monarchy. In the Place de la Revolution in Paris, members of the crowd surged forward bearing rags and handkerchiefs to capture the kingly blood as it gushed from his freshly-beheaded body.
Among the crowd of grisly souvenir-collectors was one Maximilien Bourdaloue, whose prize, according to text burned into the richly decorated surface of the gourd, was contained within. The gourd's surface was otherwise covered with decoration praising the heroes and principles of the French Revolution.
But the DNA contained in Bourdaloue's blood-soaked handkerchief did not, apparently, issue from the carotid artery of Louis XVI, a group of researchers from Spain, France and UCLA has concluded.
The DNA encased in the famous gourd, the researchers say, appears to have belonged to a man not as tall as Louis XVI, who was often described as "the tallest man in court." And the source of the preserved blood probably had brown eyes -- not the blue eyes so frequently captured in portraits of the elegant king and described in the letters of his wife, Marie-Antoinette.
Their report was published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.
In its use of the most sophisticated and comprehensive methods of genomic analysis, the study reflects a new era for forensic anthropology and suggests that future debates over historical facts are more likely to be answered in a lab than in a library.
That finding overturns and confirms two sets of conclusions drawn earlier by genetic analyses of a cruder sort. Both of those compared the Y chromosome of the DNA in the gourd with that of descendants of the House of Bourbon. One found links that suggested the blood was indeed that of Louis XVI. But a later Y chromosome comparison, which used the blood of Bourbon descendants from different branches of the formerly royal family, revealed the blood could not have been that of the king. (continued...)
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