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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

DNA can confirm identity in modern investigations. But could it solve a 400-year-old mystery?


DNA testing has become an option in historical cases only recently. It works only if bones are preserved well enough to still contain DNA - and only if there is a known relative to provide DNA for matching.

Investigators hoped to make a positive ID of the skeleton in the James Fort "captain's" burial by comparing its DNA to DNA of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold's sister. In 2005, scientists sampled bones in an unmarked grave thought to be that of Elizabeth Gosnold. The DNA results did not match, but further analysis revealed the bones were not his sister's remains.

Even without a DNA match, investigators believe that the bone and burial data, supported by the colonists' writings, identify the man buried outside James Fort. All the evidence - archaeological, forensic, and historical - points to Captain Bartholomew Gosnold.