DNA technique reveals ancient hair and eye color

Posted by Ken Kola

Researchers have discovered that a new method of establishing hair and eye color from modern forensic samples can also do the same for ancient human remains.

Using the HIrisPlex DNA analysis system, they say, a team of researchers from Poland and the Netherlands has been able to reconstruct hair and eye color from teeth up to 800 years old. The system looks at 24 DNA polymorphisms, ornaturally occurring variations, which can be used to predict eye and hair colour.

They had already tried out the technique on the remains of the Polish general Wladyslaw Sikorski (1881 to 1943) confirming his blue eyes and blond hair. Now, though, they say that the system's accurate enough to work on older and more degraded samples from human remains such as teeth and bones.

"This system can be used to solve historical controversies where colour photographs or other records are missing. HIrisPlex was able to confirm that General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who died in a plane crash in 1943, had the blue eyes and blond hair present in portraits painted years after his death," says Dr Wojciech Branicki, from the Institute of Forensic Research and Jagielonian University in Kraków.

"Some of our samples were from unknown inmates of a World War II prison. In these cases HIrisPlex helped to put physical features to the other DNA evidence."

For medieval samples, where DNA is even more degraded, this system was still able to predict eye and hair colour - although for the most degraded DNA samples it could manage eye colour alone. The system's identified one mysterious woman buried in the crypt of the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec near Kraków, sometime during the 12th-14th centuries, as having dark blond/brown hair and brown eyes.