By Szymon Zdziebłowski
Geneticists have taken DNA samples from the remains of over 30 members of the Piast dynasty to determine their ancestry.
Theories about the foreign origin of the founders of the Polish State have abounded for years with suggestions that they may originally descend from Normans or Scandinavians. Meanwhile, Professor Przemysław Urbańczyk of Cardinal Wyszynski University suggests that the dynasty of Mieszko I, Poland’s first ruler, came from Greater Moravia.
Now it is hoped that genetic analyses may shed new light on these concepts by determining the kinship between individuals and entire groups, and enabling scientists to draw conclusions about migration, health and even appearance.
Professor Marek Figlerowicz from the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań told PAP that Piast DNA research is a complex task due to the fact that their burial sites are mostly disturbed or completely destroyed.
He said: “When we began our research, we had a list of about 500 Piast burials in Poland and beyond. However, in most cases it turned out that the tombs were damaged or the remains were mixed up with the later ones. That was a large surprise for us.”
A few years ago, researchers managed to track down more than 30 places in Poland where remains could still be present. According to the scientist, the remains of the Piasts from Płock are the most promising for research. Next to the former Polish rulers Władysław I Herman (1043-1102) and Bolesław III Wrymouth (1086-1138), there are also the remains of 14 Mazovian Piast princes in the Royal Chapel in Płock.
“There were surprises waiting for us in Płock, too,” said Figlerowicz. “Only the kings rested in a stone casket, the other Piasts were buried under the floor in the church crypt. Based on preliminary analyses, we already know that the individual skeletons were not properly assigned. Fortunately, the analysis of the collected DNA samples will most likely restore their correct identity.”
One of the skulls was 3D scanned, which, in combination with data from genome analysis, will allow the scientists to reconstruct the appearance of the deceased. DNA samples were also taken from the graves of Piasts buried in Opole, Lubiń and Warsaw. In some cases, they are not rulers, but members of their families, including a bishop.
The examined remains come from the entire period of the Piast rule, from Mieszko I and Bolesław the Brave to the last members of the dynasty, the Mazovian (1526) and Silesian (1639) princes.
For geneticists, it is crucial to obtain the standard Y chromosome that determines the male sex from the genome. Men belonging to one family have the same Y chromosome. By obtaining it, scientists will be able to determine whether the next examined graves contain remains of the Piasts or not. This analyses will also enable them to learn about the origin of dynasty progenitors and answer the question about the origins.
The preliminary results obtained so far from the pool of over 30 samples are inconclusive. The scientist says that the Y chromosome read varies, which means that the fathers of some of the deceased came from outside the Piast family. “It seems that the history of the Piast dynasty may have been more confusing than we thought. Perhaps we have recorded the infidelity of the wives. We do not know, however, at what stage it could have happened and whether the matter concerns only one branch of the dynasty. We are still analysing the samples,” Professor Figlerowicz says.
The sample taken from the reliquary, in which, according to tradition, there should be a bone of Bolesław the Brave, could be helpful in discovering the standard Y chromosome. Scientists analysed a small sample from the phalanx (palm bone) found there.
“We must be very careful when drawing conclusions on the basis of analyses of the bone from the reliquary. But if it turns out that the Y chromosome is the same as in the case of Władysław I Herman, Bolesław III Wrymouth and most of the later representatives of the Piast dynasty, it can be said with high probability that the remains of the first Polish king were actually deposited in the reliquary,” he added.
The research led by Professor Marek Figlerowicz is being carried out as part of the project `Dynasty and society of the Piast state in the light of integrated historical, anthropological and genomic research’, which is financed by the National Science Centre.
Top Image: Statue of Mieszko I of Poland in the Poznań Cathedral’s Golden Chapel. Photo by Roland von Bagratuni / Wikimedia Commons