May 5, 2005

Pirate's skull undergoes DNA testing

McMaster Image
Ralf Wiechmann, an historian at the Museum of Hamburg, delivered a pirate's skull to McMaster for DNA testing by professor Hendrik Poinar.

Hamilton, ON - A skull believed to be that of the infamous pirate Klaus Störtebeker who terrorized the Baltic and North seas in the late 14th century, has arrived at McMaster University for DNA testing.

Störtebeker was known as the Robin Hood of the North Sea. Initially, his piracy was confined to Danish ships that blockaded Germany during a political struggle. Störtebeker plundered the Danish ships of ammunition and food, and turned the goods over to his countrymen. Störtebeker’s pillaging became so rampant that the Danes and the Germans were forced to make peace. In the meantime, Störtebeker had moved on to robbing English, Dutch, Prussian, and German ships. In 1400, he was captured, and beheaded. His reputation continued to live on, and his name was used on pubs, inns, cafés.

McMaster Image
Melanie Kuch, a McMaster research assistant, examines Störtebeker's skull after it was drilled to extract bone fragments. The fragments will be used by Poinar to analyze its ancient DNA.

The skull was found in 1878 during the redevelopment of the harbour in Hamburg, Germany, and has been on display ever since at the Hamburg Museum. A few years ago, Ralf Wiechmann, a young historian, joined the museum and became intrigued with the skull. Carbon dating placed the skull at 1390 to 1415. Wiechmann then set about researching the period and the locale, which led him to believe the skull might belong to the infamous pirate Störtebeker.

The next step for Wiechmann was to extract DNA from the skull. He called upon Hendrik Poinar, a geneticist at McMaster University who runs one of the few labs in the world that does ancient DNA analysis from fossil remains. It will take Poinar several weeks before the authenticity of the results are known. After that, Wiechmann will contact people with the surname of Störtebeker to come forth with a DNA sample: These will be typed by Poinar’s colleague, Manfred Keyser of the University of Rotterdam. If the DNA matches the DNA from the skull, the puzzle could be solved.

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