- DNA unmasks Czech past
Prague Castle bones could reveal medieval dynasty descendants
By Hilda Hoy
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
April 25th, 2007
Jan Prerovský/THE PRAGUE POST
Forensics expert Daniel Vanek believes that Premyslid dynasty remains will
fill in a picture long blank.
A research project at Prague Castle is mapping the DNA of centuries-old
Bohemian rulers with the aim of bringing Czech history "closer to the
people," the project's lead researcher says.
In various locations around the castle - such as St. Vitus Cathedral, the
Basilica of St. George and the destroyed Church of Our Lady - are buried the
ancient remains of the Czech Premyslid dynasty, some of them more than a
Using DNA, researchers hope to find descendants of the dynasty.
Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists, historians and forensic
scientists began working on the Archeosteon, or ancient bone, project,
extracting DNA from these bones and creating a "genetic genealogy,"
forensics expert Dr. Daniel Vanek says.
"There are a lot of unknowns about these people," he says. "Anthropologists
can estimate age and sex, that's all. But with DNA you can have a complete
Vanek presented the results of the project's first stage at a Prague
conference of the Czechoslovak Society for Forensic Genetics April 16-17.
While there are still years of work ahead, the research has already borne
fruit, he says.
"The results were great," he says. Though at one time DNA could only be
extracted from substances like blood or saliva, his team has had success
with these ancient Premyslid skeletons. "We've developed a very robust
method of extracting DNA from bone samples."
Credited as the founders of Czech statehood, the Premyslid dynasty ruled
over Bohemia, and at times parts of modern-day Poland, from the ninth
century until 1306.
According to legend, the dynasty is descended from the mythical princess
Libuše, who foretold the founding of Prague during a vision. Libuše married
Premysl, and their future descendants were named the Premyslids.
"The people buried at Prague Castle are very important for Czech history
[but] we know only a little about them," says Dr. Milena Bravermanová, an
archaeologist at the castle who helped excavate the burial sites. "We have
graves, we have skeletons, but we don't know who these people were."
"For us, it's very important to know as much as possible about . our past.
We hope the DNA research will help us do that," she says.
Bravermanová has spent years painstakingly excavating the castle's graves.
Using brushes and special tools to carefully sweep away centuries of dirt,
she and her team unearthed the bones, sometimes discovering things such as
knives, jewelry or fragments of clothing along with the remains.
>From there, Vanek and his researchers took samples of the bones andlaboriously extracted DNA samples. First, a piece of the bone is carefully
cut using power tools, he says. The bone is soaked to remove the many
"inhibitor enzymes" that impede DNA extraction. The bones are ground to a
fine powder, and DNA is then amplified using a technique called polymerase
chain reaction, or PCR.
It's the same process Vanek used on bones from mass graves around Kosovo,
where he aided in the prosecution of war crimes. It's also the technique he
uses to help Czech police crack unsolved homicides. U.S. authorities, too,
use the process to identify remains of soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam.
With bones younger than 10 years, DNA can be extracted in under a week, he
says. With ancient material such as that found at Prague Castle, "it takes
months, if you're lucky."
His team has come out lucky. Using the DNA Vanek has extracted from the
Prague Castle bones, Archeosteon researchers hope to firm up their
understanding of the Premyslid history and family tree. It may even be
possible to eventually imagine these nobles' appearances, including hair and
eye color, Vanek says.
"The science is running quickly. We have new techniques nearly every month,"
he says. "But we don't want to push it. The main goal is identification
[and] to answer historical questions. And when we release our methods, we
can help other archaeo-geneticists all over the world."
A genetic map
Another question that could be answered by the project is whether the
Premyslids really died out.
Though the royal line is said to have ended in 1306 with the murder of King
Wenceslas III, historians have reason to believe Premyslid descendants are
still walking the Czech lands today.
"We know that, from the 11th century, the dynasty spread very much,"
Bravermanová says. "Because of this, it's possible that some descendants are
still alive. But we have a lot of years for which we know nothing. It's
possible that the DNA can help us."
By testing "as many Czech males as possible" and creating a database of
their Y-chromosome material, Vanek says, researchers may eventually be able
to trace today's Czech population all the way back to Premyslids, and
"The information stored on the male Y chromosome is transferred down through
the generations. You can even trace our roots down to Africa, to Adam," he
"It's the mission of every scientist to find the answers to questions, and
there are still a lot of unknowns about the Premyslid dynasty."
Nada Cerná contributed to this report.
Hilda Hoy can be reached at hhoy@...
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