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Did you know DNA is useful for confirming historical family trees?

Reconstructing the ancient kinships of the House of Königsfeld

When ancient remains are discovered, historical records and morphological features are used to construct their family trees. However, the resulting genealogical tree is often somewhat tentative. So, when the family burial place of the Earls of Königsfeld was discovered, the researchers chose to confirm their predicted family tree with DNA analyses. This is the story of reconstructing the historical relationships of the House of Königsfeld and identifying adultery in the process!

The Königsfeld’s were members of a small aristocratic class in Reichersdorf, Lower Bavaria, Germany. According to inscriptions at the St. Margaretha’s Church in Reichersdorf, the church was the burial site for eight males (Earls) across seven generations of the House of Königsfeld from 1546 to 1749. In 1993, archaeological excavations at this church uncovered eight skeletons, along with one grave that had been destroyed by grave robbers. Like many wealthy families, there were strong historical records available for the House of Königsfeld. Archaeologists were able to reconstruct the family tree and tentatively determine which skeleton belonged to each Königsfeld individual. Interestingly, the morphological traits of one skeleton indicated that it was actually a female skeleton (designated as Ma 1). There is no record of a female buried there, so who was she?

This is where genetic analyses come into play. The researchers confirmed the the gender of each of the skeletons (by amelogenin testing), and traced biological relationships through the analysis of both autosomal and Y-DNA markers known as short tandem repeats (STRs).

  • Amplification of the amelogenin gene is a useful technique for determining the gender of skeletal remains, as there is a copy of this gene on both the X chromosome and the male Y chromosome, but the gene versions differ slightly. This allows researchers to determine if two X chromosomes are present (female) or one X and one Y (male).
  • STRs are repeated areas found in our DNA that are incredibly useful for both current and ancient relationship testing, especially for degraded samples, as only small regions of DNA need to be analyzed.
    • Autosomal STRs are found on the autosomal chromosomes of both males and females. They are inherited equally from each parent.
    • Y-DNA STRs are on the male-specific Y chromosome. They are only carried by males and are passed from father to son, providing useful markers for tracing paternal lineages.
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These genetic analyses confirmed some observations, but also identified further discrepancies! The Y-DNA STR marker tests confirmed most of the paternal lineage of the Earls of Königsfeld, (as per the family tree shown below), but also identified a case of non-paternity. Historical records state that Georg Josef is the son of Josef Wilheim. However, the Y-DNA analysis confirmed that Georg Josef is not from the same paternal lineage as the other Earls of Königsfeld. It is unlikely that an individual not from the House of Königsfeld would have been buried here. Hence, Georg Josef is most likely the result of adultery between Josef Wilhelm’s wife and an unidentified man.

These genetic analyses confirmed the female gender of skeleton Ma 1, but also identified another skeleton as a young female (designated as Ma 32). Archaeologists had assumed this skeleton was Karl Albrecht, a young male who died at just 13 years of age, but the genetics prove otherwise. So where do these two females fit in the Königsfeld family tree? Autosomal STR analyses indicate that the young female (Ma 32) was a daughter of the adult female (Ma 1) and Georg Josef. So she was actually a sister of Karl Albrecht who was supposedly buried at the St. Margaretha’s Church.

 

Lineage of the Earls of Königsfeld.
Lineage of the Earls of Königsfeld. Based on historical records and inscriptions, the individuals buried here are shown in grey. The genetic analyses conducted in this study confirmed the paternal lineage but also identified the discrepancies shown in red. (Image modified from Gerstenberger J et al. (1999) Eur J Hum Genet)

This study illustrates the benefits of using genetic analyses to confirm or refute historical records and archaeological findings. It has also determined the Y-DNA STR marker profile for the House of Königsfeld. If you have taken the DNA Paternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your Y-DNA STR markers against this aristocratic family to see if you may have descended from the same paternal lineage.

Reference:

Gerstenberger J et al. (1999) Reconstruction of a historical genealogy by means of STR analysis and Y-haplotyping of ancient DNA. Eur J Hum Genet. 7(4):469-77.

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