[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=earthrise&iid=3812567″ src=”f/8/5/3/Earthrise_5623.jpg?adImageId=13046813&imageId=3812567″ width=”234″ height=”176″ /]It’s been almost five hundred years since Copernicus published his revolutionary theory that the earth revolved around the sun. This theory changed how man saw himself—removing him from a position at the center of the universe—and so was a radical and controversial idea at the time. Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Recently, as a result of painstaking archaeological and scientific detective work, his bones were identified and re-buried with full honors.
The story of how Copernicus remains were identified is a fascinating combination of modern science and old-fashioned detective work. It was known that he was buried in Frombork Cathedral in Poland, but the exact location of the grave was a mystery. The graves around a particular altar were excavated, and a few bones that appeared to belong to a man of about the right age were found. Facial reconstruction techniques were then used to compare the features with known portraits of Copernicus. All of these analyses suggested that the bones could be the right ones.
Modern forensic technology allows positive identification on the basis of DNA analysis. However, without a sample from a known relative or a comparison sample from Copernicus himself there was no way to use DNA to confirm that the bones belonged to him. When a person has been dead for 500 years, it’s hard to find a close enough relative for comparison, and it would normally be laughable to think that a sample from the person himself (besides the bones) could have survived. In an amazing stroke of luck, several hairs were found in a book known to have belonged to Copernicus that had been housed in a library in Sweden. DNA from three of these hairs was an exact match for the skeleton excavated from the cathedral in Poland, and the bones positively identified on that basis. It’s an amazing detective story, and astonishing that his hairs lay undisturbed in that book for 500 years (maybe it was a math book).
The DNA analysis revealed that the owner of the bones had a gene that is associated with blue (or light-colored eyes. This gave the investigators a moment of doubt, because in the available portraits, Copernicus appears to have dark eyes, however, the weight of the other evidence was considered strong enough to make a positive identification.
These were the bones of a 70 year old man with blue eyes. Somehow these personal details do more to communicate the humanity of the subject than a name, even if that name is associated with a revolutionary discovery. Through the vehicle of DNA analysis, even a set of old bones can speak to us. They cry across the centuries and remind us of our common, vulnerable and fragile humanity.