Authors: Bryan Sykes
Though the DNA matches gave a pretty high level of proof already, there is a further level to consider. We have not yet taken into consideration the fact that the two sets of matching sequences were found in the same grave and came from the parents of the three children, according to the DNA fingerprints. How does that affect the result? The answer is that it makes the level of proof that these really were the Romanov bones very high indeed. The probability of getting matches to
sets of mitochondrial DNA sequences just by chance is the mathematical product of the individual probabilities. That is one in a thousand multiplied by one in a hundred, which comes to the vanishingly small figure of one in a hundred thousand. Add to that the circumstantial evidence which led to the discovery of the grave and the evidence of bullet wounds, and the proof climbs even higher towards 100 per cent.
But one mystery remained. Only five Romanov bodies were ever found â two adults and three girls. Formally, one might take the view that this is evidence against the remains being those of the Romanovs at all. But it tallies with persistent rumours that some of the children had escaped execution. A Soviet announcement that only the Tsar himself had died and that the rest of the family had been sent to a safe place was swiftly followed by the appearance of all too obvious impostors. For a while, every town in Siberia, then in the hands of the White Russians and not the Bolsheviks, had its own âGrand Duchesses' and âCrown Princes'. Most were obvious frauds, but some managed to do well out of the deception for a while. One enterprising businessman even ran a regular export service, persuading local millionaires to part with their cash to help him send the imperial refugees abroad to safety. His accomplice, playing the part of one or other rescued âGrand Duchess', even allowed the entranced sponsors to kiss her hand as she bade a tearful last farewell to her beloved country.
The Tsar's mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna, exiled in Copenhagen, did more than anyone to keep alive the myth that her family had survived, refusing to accept that they had died right up to her own death in 1928. Throughout the last ten years of her life she was challenged to accept the claims of numerous pretenders as her grandchildren. By far the most persistent of these claims was that of the woman who became known as Anna Anderson. It began when a young woman jumped from a bridge into the Landwehr canal in Berlin in February 1919, seven months after the Ekaterinburg massacre. She was rescued, but resolutely refused to reveal her identity and was confined to a mental hospital as âFrÃ¤ulein Unbekannt' â the unknown lady. One of her fellow inmates, Clara Peuthert, became convinced, from an account of the massacre in a Berlin newspaper, that this withdrawn and uncommunicative patient was none other than the Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second of the Tsar's four daughters. After she was released from the asylum, Clara Peuthert championed FrÃ¤ulein Unbekannt's case among the White Russian Ã©migrÃ©s in Berlin. Using these contacts, she arranged a visit by the Tsarina's former lady-in-waiting, Baroness Buxhoeveden. This was the first of many often disastrous encounters with people anxious to establish the real identity of the âsurvivor' that went on for most of the rest of her life. On this occasion, FrÃ¤ulein Unbekannt hid under the bedclothes. The redoubtable Baroness pulled the sheets aside and dragged her out of bed. She could not possibly be Tatiana, exclaimed the Baroness. She was far too short. This rather obvious disqualification only made FrÃ¤ulein Unbekannt declare that she had not actually said she was Tatiana, who was, in fact, the tallest of the Tsar's daughters. At only 5ft 2in, FrÃ¤ulein Unbekannt was much more the size of Anastasia. And so that is who she claimed to be for the rest of her life, taking the name Anna as an abbreviation of Anastasia and adding Anderson many years later to confuse local journalists during her stay at a hotel on Long Island, New York.
Anna Anderson's pathetic life, spent in hospitals and the homes of her supporters, came to an end in 1984 near Charlottesville in Virginia. If she were Anastasia she would have been eighty-three years old. Over the years she became embroiled in unending legal battles between her supporters and those who wanted her claim dismissed. Her opponents were accused of wanting to prove the death of the Tsar's entire family so that they could benefit from money the Romanovs had deposited in overseas bank accounts; her supporters were accused of coveting those fortunes for themselves. Throughout all this conflict and controversy, Anna Anderson herself never vigorously prosecuted her claim. Whenever there was a chance to impress one of the Tsar's relatives who had been persuaded to visit her, she would be untalkative and uncooperative, refusing to answer questions and often hiding in her room. While this behaviour annulled her claim in the eyes of her detractors, it was her very reluctance to press her case, coupled with an absolute self-belief that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, that convinced her supporters. The matter was never conclusively settled during her lifetime, and she passed away with her claim neither validated nor disproved. Fortunately for her, she died before the cold eye of genetics could be turned on the case. If she had lived another few years, like her contemporary Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who is still alive at the age of 100, then her lifetime of deception would have been mercilessly exposed.
In a thrilling piece of detective work, mitochondrial DNA was recovered from a stored biopsy from Anna Anderson, taken when she was in hospital for an operation to remove a bowel obstruction in 1979. It had a completely different sequence from the Tsarina's DNA. Anna Anderson could not possibly have been Anastasia. A test that had taken a month at most to perform had demolished at a stroke one of the most enduring and romantic sagas that had gripped the world from one end of the twentieth century to the other. Such is the power of DNA to dispel myths â even those we might prefer to have believed.
The sequence from Anna Anderson's biopsy did, however, match a living maternal relative of one Franziska Schanzkowska, a patient in a Berlin mental home who disappeared in 1919 shortly before âAnastasia' made her appearance in the same city. Opponents of Anna Anderson's claim had always suspected her to be Franziska Schanzkowska, and not Anastasia as she claimed. DNA proved them right.
So the mystery of Anastasia lives on. In our laboratory we have more than once been asked to examine the DNA of further claimants. Sadly, none of them has passed the scrutiny of the DNA test. In the 1956 film
, written as a romantic fiction rather than as a true record of events, the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna puts Anastasia, played by Ingrid Bergman, through a series of tests to prove whether she is her grand-daughter. She eventually accepts the young woman, and the film ends happily. It would not have, had DNA been around. But the film also brought its own reward for Anna Anderson, who received a share of the royalties.
If Anna Anderson, the most convincing of the claimants, was not Anastasia, perhaps the Grand Duchess had perished with her sisters after all. The pit contained the bodies of only three girls. Two bodies, those of one of the Grand Duchesses and the Crown Prince the Tsarevich Alexei, are still missing. Alexei, too, has had his impersonators. A Soviet sailor, Nikolai Dalsky, persisted in his claim to the imperial crown, which in Soviet Russia showed a certain self-confidence, until he died in 1965. His son, âNikolai Romanov', inherited the claim on his father's death and refers to his own son Vladimir as the Tsarevich. However, the truth is almost certainly that the whole family were killed. Written reports, for what they are worth, record that the men whose job it was to dispose of the bodies first tried to burn them in the woods near the site of the pit where the remains were found. They built a pyre and put on it first the smallest body, that of Alexei, then one of the Grand Duchesses, doused them in petrol and set fire to them. But the flames did not consume everything. Teeth and fragments of bones lay near the fire. The plan was changed and the rest of the bodies were flung into the shallow pit. If that version of events is true, the last remains of Alexei and Anastasia lie not in the graves of the pretenders but charred and burnt beneath the leaf litter of a wood in the Russian Urals.
Though I like the odd vodka, I have never considered myself a Romanov; but I couldn't help noticing that my own DNA sequence matched that of Tsar Nicholas II. If we ignore for the moment the minor component of the Tsar's DNA introduced by heteroplasmy at position 169, we both have the notation 126, 294,296. Had my grandmother decided to pursue a claim to be Anastasia (most unlikely, since she came from Norfolk and never went to Russia) then it could not have been disproved by the same DNA test that eventually unmasked Anna Anderson. Does it mean that I am related to the Romanovs, even distantly? The amazing answer is âyes'.
This is the point to stop and take in one entirely logical yet utterly extraordinary fact which forms the basis of a lot of what this book is about. If any two people trace their maternal line back â through mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so on â eventually the two lines will converge on one woman. If the two people are brothers or sisters, then it is simple: their maternal lines meet in their mother. If the two people are cousins, the children of two sisters, then the lines converge on their shared maternal grandmother. Even though most people who have not researched their family trees will lose the trail not far beyond that, the principle is maintained no matter how long you go back into the past. Any two people, in your family, your town, your country â even the whole world â are linked through their mothers and their mothers' mothers to a common maternal ancestor. The only difference between any two people is this: How long ago did this woman live?
Further than a handful of generations back, the written records of most maternal connections are completely lost to us, so we just would not know the answer to this question. But the DNA doesn't forget. The mitochondrial DNA, because of its special inheritance exclusively through the female line, traces exactly that path back in time. And because the sequence of mitochondrial DNA changes due to random mutations, albeit very slowly, we can use it as a sort of clock. If two people shared a common maternal ancestor in the recent past, then their mitochondrial DNA will not have had time to change through mutation. Like the hamsters, their mitochondrial DNA sequences will be exactly the same. If she, the common ancestor, lived further back in time then there is a chance that a mutation will have occurred somewhere along one or both of the two tracks which lead back to her from the present day. If she lived further back still, there might be two or more mutations. By counting the differences between the two sequences, we can estimate the length of the matrilineal connection between any two people in the world. To put dates on to this we need to know the mutation rate for mitochondrial DNA. We will look in greater depth at how the rate is estimated in a later chapter (see Chapter 11). The best estimates are that, on average, if two people had a common ancestor ten thousand years ago then there would be one difference in their control region sequences. If the common maternal ancestor of two people lived twenty thousand years ago, then we would expect to see two mutational differences in their mitochondrial DNA.
Of course, there is not the faintest chance of knowing from any written source whether any two people were related through their maternal lines twenty thousand years ago, so we work it the other way around. If two people have exactly the same control region sequence, their common ancestor will have lived, on average, some time in the last ten thousand years. The Tsar and I do have the same control region sequence. So our maternal ancestry, working back through, on my side, my mother Irene Clifford and her mother Elizabeth Smith and on the Tsar's, through his mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna and her mother Louise of Hesse-Cassel, Queen of Denmark, most likely converges on a common ancestor who lived within the last ten thousand years. Not close enough for me to make a realistic claim to the Romanov fortunes, I think.
Measuring ancestral connections in tens of thousands of years may seem too crude to be interesting. However, although the mitochondrial mutation rate seems incredibly slow, it is fortunately just about right for studying human evolution over the last hundred thousand years â which is when most of the action happened. If the mutation rate had been much faster than it is, relationships would be harder to follow. If it were much slower, there would be too few differences between people to see any patterns at all. Taking the next logical step, if any two people can trace a common maternal ancestor, it follows that any
of people can do the same. I slowly realized that we held in our hands the power to reconstruct the maternal genealogy of the whole world. Not exactly world domination; but I'm sure my distant cousin, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, Imperial Tsar of all the Russias, would have approved. The question was: where should we begin?
At nine-fifteen every evening Air New Zealand flight NZI takes off from Los Angeles International Airport. Within thirty seconds it has crossed the short stretch of dry land between the end of the runway and the ocean. There is no throttling back of the engines to cut down on the noise levels. There is no need. Flight NZI is now over the Pacific, and will not see land again until it crosses the Coromandel peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand as it makes its approach to Auckland. But that is still seven thousand miles and fourteen hours ahead. Between then and now there is only the open ocean beneath us â the apparently endless reach of the Pacific Ocean. Sprinkled across this vastness are thousands of islands, but so dwarfed are they by the sea that you are very unlikely to catch even a glimpse of any of them from the plane. And yet, by the time the first European ships began to explore the Pacific, every one of these islands had been found and settled by the people I have come to regard as the greatest maritime explorers the world has ever seen â the Polynesians.
I would like to be able to say that my decision to work in Polynesia was the result of careful planning, of balancing the scientific advantages of studying island populations with the difficulty and expense of working on the other side of the world. I would like to be able to say that, but the truth is that it all came about by accident â literally. In the autumn of 1990 I was taking a term's sabbatical leave and had arranged to spend part of it at the University of Washington in Seattle and the rest in Melbourne, Australia. This meant crossing the Pacific and, since I had never seen a tropical island before, I scheduled stop-overs in Hawaii and in a place called Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. I had never heard of Rarotonga, and only very vaguely of the Cook Islands for that matter, but it fitted into the flight schedules more conveniently than the better-known alternatives of Tahiti or Fiji.
It also had more by way of contrast to offer. Hawaii is certainly tropical and very beautiful, but at least around the capital, Honolulu, on Oahu there is no doubt at all that you are still very much in America with high-rise, pizza and pet cemeteries. Landing in Rarotonga is a very different cultural experience altogether. There are no luggage carousels: you just pick up your bags from a pile. A man with a guitar is singing a welcoming song as if he means it, which is impressive at four o'clock in the morning. And then there was Malcolm. Cheery and ruddy-faced, Malcolm Laxton-Blinkhorn is English, but nowhere near as grand as his name suggests. He has had what might be called a varied career â marine commando, sheep farmer, actor, television producerâ¦and now hotelier in Rarotonga, having married a local girl. Although his hotel was on the beach at the other side of the island, Rarotonga being only 26 miles round it didn't take us long to get there. It was still dark, but who could resist going down to the water's edge and just sitting? Slowly I become aware that it is not as quiet as it should be. There is a distant but persistent low roar, like a busy motorway a mile or two off. But there are virtually no cars on the island and certainly no motorways. The sound I hear is the ocean. As the light grows I can make out a thin white line near the horizon. This is where the swell of the ocean, even on calm days like today, pounds into the coral reef that surrounds and protects the island.
My plan was to spend just a few days on Rarotonga before going on to Melbourne and carrying on with my work. Like most visitors I hired a small motorcycle, took my driving test, which consisted of riding 50 yards up the road and back to the police station, got my driving licence and set off. Straight into a palm tree. I broke my shoulder. I couldn't leave the island until it had set. Several weeks, I was told. So I settled in for a long stay.
Rarotonga is the main island of the Southern Cooks, a widely scattered archipelago seven hundred miles to the west of Tahiti. The islands get their name from Captain James Cook, the eighteenth-century English navigator, whose portrait (and it always seems to be the same one) is everywhere on the island, even fixing you with his inscrutable gaze as you down a bottle of Cook Islands lager. Though Cook explored many of the islands in the group he inexplicably failed to sight Rarotonga, though it is the largest of the Cooks and rises to 650 metres. The honour of being the first Europeans to land on Rarotonga went to the mutineers of HMS
, who in 1789 stopped on their way to the even more remote Pitcairn Island in their search for a refuge far away from the long arm of the British navy. Today the Cook Islands are internally self-governing, allied with New Zealand in foreign affairs and defence; but they were once a British protectorate and are still a member of the Commonwealth. Even though I doubt whether one in a hundred English people have ever heard of the Cook Islands, the islanders still retain some of the customs of their former colonial patrons. With a lot of time on my hands, and my arm in a sling, I went along to hear a debate in the Cook Islands parliament. The parliament building may only have been a set of corrugated iron roofed huts near the airport runway, but the procedures were every bit as formal as in the House of Commons at Westminster. At the front of the chamber sat the Speaker, through whom all remarks were addressed. Bills were introduced for first readings. Committee stages took place on the floor of the House, and full-scale debates were followed by a division. And guillotine motions. It was getting round to five o'clock in the afternoon when, with a long-winded debate on the pay of MPs and civil servants in full swing, the government introduced a guillotine motion to impose a time limit. And the reason? The cabinet had agreed to sing at the secondary school's netball team fundraiser at six-thirty, so parliamentary business had to finish by six. This was a place which had obviously got its priorities right.
Another legacy of the past was the museum and library. Even though it was surrounded by coconut palms and mango trees dripping with fruit, once inside I could have been in home counties England: silence, shelves of books and an inconspicuous librarian with a rubber stamp to frank the withdrawals. And empty. There was a substantial collection of books about the Pacific, and I began to read about the part of the world where I was an unplanned (but not too unwilling) prisoner until my fracture healed. Sitting on the fringe of the beach, staring out to the ocean beyond the crashing surf on the reef, knowing that it stretched for thousands of miles in every direction, I found one question persistently nudging me. How did the Polynesians discover and settle this island, and where had they come from?
Captain Cook, though not the first by any means, was by far the most widely travelled of the European navigators who explored the Pacific. Raised in humble circumstances in Yorkshire, and desperate to go to sea as soon as possible, he joined a ship from the port of Whitby. This was a time when an aristocratic pedigree was almost essential for a successful career in the Royal Navy; however, by his sheer brilliance in navigation Cook rose through the ranks to command his own ship. So impressive was he in his navigation of the notorious St Lawrence River during the war against the French in Quebec that he was chosen to take command of HMS
and lead a scientific party from the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Timing this rare event was important in the calculation of the distance between the earth and the sun, and the best opportunity for observing the 1769 transit was to be found in Tahiti. This mission accomplished, Cook set out on further explorations of the Pacific which took him, in this and his other two voyages, to New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific north-west coast of America, through the Bering Straits and finally to Hawaii, where he was killed by natives at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island on Valentine's Day 1779.
As a navigator, Cook took a professional interest in the question of the origins of the people he encountered on these remote and scattered islands. Over the period of his three voyages he observed the similarities, in both looks and language, between islanders as far apart as Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand, and deduced that this meant they all shared a common origin. But where was it? Polynesian tradition too speaks of an ancestral homeland, Havaiiki, but without being specific as to its location. Cook knew only too well that the winds, and the currents, of the Pacific move from east to west across the ocean, from the Americas to Asia. If Polynesians came originally from Asia, then they would have had to battle against both wind and current; if they came from the Americas, they would have been assisted on their voyage by these same natural elements â and these were considerable forces. The Spanish navigators were the first Europeans to explore the Pacific, and they could cross only one way, from east to west. Having sailed from their bases in Central America to the Philippines, they could not sail back the way they had come and had no option but to return by the Great Circle route, north past Japan and Alaska then south down the Pacific seaboard of North America. If Spanish galleons with their formidable sail power and sophisticated navigation could not defeat the winds and currents, then how could the far smaller vessels of the native Polynesians possibly have done so?
One particularly condescending group of western anthropologists were so convinced that the Polynesians were simply too incompetent to organize anything resembling a deliberate voyage of exploration, especially if it meant sailing into the wind, that they felt no further proof of the islanders' American origin was needed. In their view, the only possible way for these primitives to have reached the islands was by getting lost while out fishing and just drifting on to them â never mind that this would require them to have gone fishing with their whole families, their livestock and a few taro plants stowed on board. This appalling legacy of white colonial attitudes is still keenly felt by many Polynesians. Proof of their Asian origin would certainly crush this nonsense once and for all, and establish their ancestors as supreme masters of the sea.
The controversy in the minds of Europeans surrounding Polynesian origins has lasted for two hundred years. On the one hand, the evidence of archaeology and language, and the types of domesticated animals and plants found in Polynesia, all point to an origin in south-east Asia. On the other, there has been a persistent tradition, most recently revived by the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, that puts the origin of the first Polynesians in the Americas. Of the evidence for an American connection, the most compelling is the widespread cultivation throughout Polynesia of the
or sweet potato, which no-one doubts is native to the Andes of South America. In his books Heyerdahl also provides other connections of language, mythology and some archaeology, like the stone facings on carvings found in Easter Island which bear a striking resemblance to the style of the Incas. But his most celebrated piece of evidence is the voyage of
, the balsa raft that he used to sail, or rather to drift, from the coast of South America four thousand miles to the Tuamotu islands not far from Tahiti. Of course, to demonstrate that it can be done does not mean that it
remains a persuasive argument to a lot of people.
Irritated by what they saw as a stunt by Heyerdahl, the serious anthropologists who had painstakingly pieced together the evidence for an Asian origin did not hide their feelings in their writings. Sitting in the library in Rarotonga, I was shocked by the toxins that dripped from the pages whenever Heyerdahl's theories were mentioned. His ideas may not have enjoyed wide support among academic anthropologists, but to me, coming fresh and ignorant to the field, his evidence taken at face value seemed to have at least some merit. How strange, I thought, that otherwise moderate and scholarly academics should suddenly lose it when the H-word was mentioned.
I sat in Lucy's cafÃ© in Avarua, the capital (indeed, the only town) of Rarotonga, having an ice-cream, just looking at the people coming and going. Did they look more Asian or more American? It wasn't obvious to me. I distinctly remember one small girl who could have come straight from a
cover story on the Amazonian rainforests. If only I could test the mitochondrial DNA of the people in the cafÃ©! I was sure I would be able to tell whether their closest genetic links were with Asia or America. So, at the next hospital appointment to review my fractured shoulder, I explained that I was a geneticist and what I had in mind. Somehow or other I managed to persuade the hospital to let me have the remnants of thirty-five blood samples left over from blood-sugar tests. Diabetes is very common in Rarotonga, and so there are a lot of tests for blood glucose levels. I stored the samples in the freezer back at the hotel. After my shoulder healed â a little too quickly, I thought â I carried these precious phials of blood with me to Australia, where I very nearly had them confiscated by customs, then eventually back to England and my laboratory.