When paleoanthropologists went to examine the coffin attributed Prince Branciforte Barresi, they found a secondary burial site with bones of four people mixed together. This is the story of how historical records were tested with DNA analyses, to identify the possible remains of the Prince, his brother and three of his daughters.

Who was Prince Franco Branciforte Barresi?

Prince Franco Branciforte Barresi
Prince Franco Branciforte Barresi (By Gimalgi73, from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Prince Franco Branciforte Barresi was a Sicilian arts patron and benefactor. Born in 1575, he was the Prince of Pietraperzia and Marchese of Militello. He married Juana of Austria in 1603 and, although historical records vary, it’s likely that they had five daughters. One daughter died as an infant and three others died as young children. Their eldest daughter lived to adulthood and had one son, whom died at four years of age.

Historical records indicate that Prince Branciforte Barresi died in 1622. The remains were buried in the chapel of San Benedetto church of Militello di Catania (Sicily). His brother, two young daughters and young grandson were also thought to be buried in the chapel.

Assessing the remains

In 1996, a research team entered the chapel to examine the state of preservation of Prince Branciforte Barresi’s remains. In addition to the Prince’s skeleton, investigators also found mixed remains of four other individuals in a secondary burial site. These skeletons likely belong to his brother, two young daughters and grandson.

All the bones were in a good state of preservation, allowing for the initial archaeological and osteological analyses. This good preservation also allowed genetic analyses, to confirm the gender of each skeleton and to determine relationships between the skeletons.

Genetic analyses of the skeletal remains

First round of DNA analyses looked at the gender specific amelogenin gene. Amelogenin is located on the sex chromosomes. Females with two X chromosomes have two identical copies of this gene, while males have two different copies.

The two adult skeletons turned out to be male, likely belonging to Prince Branciforte Barresi and his brother. The three juvenile skeletons were all identified as female. They likely belong to two of his daughters (as detailed in historical records), but not his young grandson.

Regions of mtDNA amenable DNA analysis

The next step involved determining relationships between the skeletons using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Strict maternal (mother to child) inheritance pattern of mtDNA makes it useful for maternal relationship testing.  There is a higher chance of obtaining good quality mtDNA from ancient remains, due to its high copy number per cell.

There are three regions of mtDNA: the two-hypervariable regions, HVR1 and HVR2 and the coding region. The HVR regions provide the most variation and information for the analysis of ancient remains.

As would be expected for two brothers, the two male skeletons shared the same mtDNA HVR profile. The three juvenile skeletons shared a common mtDNA profile, which differed from the profile of the two male skeletons.

Conclusions

The genders and mtDNA profiles determined in this study are mostly consistent with the historical records regarding the identity of the remains in the chapel of San Benedetto church. It is likely that the remains belong to Prince Branciforte Barresi, his adult brother and two of his young daughters.

Interiors and frescoes of San Benedetto church in Catana
Interiors and frescoes of San Benedetto church in Catana

However, the last juvenile skeleton is also a female, so not the Prince’s young grandson as previously assumed. Since this skeleton shares the same mtDNA profile as the other two young females, it’s possible that belongs to another of the Prince’s daughters, who also died as a young child.

Unfortunately, no living descendants of Prince Branciforte Barresi’s family agreed to provide DNA samples. Maternal references could have conclusively identified the remains, because it allows a comparison between their mtDNA and the mtDNA obtained from the skeletons. This could conclusively identify the remains.

But, even without these references, the genetic data strongly supports the anthropological and historical evidence that these remains do belong to Prince Branciforte Barresi and his family.

The DNA tests conducted in this study have defined the mtDNA profiles of Prince Branciforte Barresi and his family. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against these profilesto see if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage as the Branciforte royal family.

Reference:
Rickards O et al. (2001) DNA analyses of the remains of the Prince Branciforte Barresi family. Int J Legal Med. 114(3):141-6.