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Skeleton from Vasa shipwreck was female

A skeleton from the Vasa (Murat Özsoy)

When the 17th-century Swedish warship Vasa was raised from the Baltic Sea more than 60 years ago, the 30 human skeletons found with the shipwreck were assumed to be those of its male crew. 

Now the shape of a pelvic bone and recent forensics breakthroughs have enabled scientists to determine that at least one woman was on the iconic ship when it sank off Stockholm barely into its maiden voyage in 1628.

Only one of the people on Vasa that day had been named in the archives, according to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, but conventional study of their bones was for a long time limited to determining factors such as age, height and medical history.

Since 2004 the museum has collaborated with the Department of Immunology, Genetics & Pathology at Uppsala University in investigating the remains – for much of the time simply trying to assign each bone to an individual. 

Complicating the task was the fact that many animal bones were also found onboard, with 80% of around 2,000 studied having been identified by last year.

“It is very difficult to extract DNA from bone which has been on the bottom of the sea for 333 years,” said team-leader forensic geneticist Prof Marie Allen, “but not impossible.”

Marie Allen and the Vasa Museum's conservator Malin Sahlstedt work to extract DNA from part of a skeleton found on Vasa (Upsala University)
Marie Allen and Vasa Museum conservator Malin Sahlstedt work to extract DNA from part of a skeleton found on Vasa (Uppsala University)

One of the skeletons, tagged ‘G’, had been suspected to be female from the shape of a hipbone and the fact that no Y-chromosomes had been traced in the genetic material, “but we could not be certain and wanted to confirm the result”, said Prof Allen.

That confirmation came through a new testing method for genetic variants developed by the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware. Part of the American Department of Defence, the laboratory is responsible for analysing battlefield remains.

“We have known that there were women onboard Vasa when it sank, and now we have received confirmation that they are among the remains,” says museum historian and researcher Dr Anna Maria Forssberg. “I am currently researching the wives of seamen, so for me this is especially exciting. They are often forgotten, even though they played an important role for the navy.”

The Vasa hulk was raised in May 1961 - and is still yielding secrets
The Vasa was raised in 1961 – and is still yielding secrets

Freckles and earwax

The new sampling method is now expected to yield further information on aspects such as hair and eye colour and possibly geographical origins of people found on Vasa. “We can say if a person was predisposed to certain illnesses, or even very small details, such as if they had freckles and wet or dry earwax,” said Prof Allen.

The Vasa Museum’s researchers are also studying the personal possessions found with the skeletons with a view to a future exhibition.

Raising the wreck from a depth of more than 30m in 1961 involved more than 1,300 dives carried out in dangerous conditions, though without any serious incidents. The restored ship is one of Sweden's most popular tourist attractions and has been seen by more than 35 million visitors at the Vasa Museum.

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