DNA tests to establish if pigtails belonged to mutineers on the Bounty
Published 22/08/2016 | 16:26
DNA tests could prove that seven pigtails kept in a 19th-century tobacco tin belonged to the mutineers on HMS Bounty, the first physical evidence of the men's existence.
While the story of the mutiny against captain William Bligh by his disaffected crew in the South Pacific in 1789 is famous, the only tangible evidence of those who hid from justice on the remote Pitcairn Islands is the grave of mutineer John Adams.
But scientists at King's College London hope tests on strands of hair can eventually link the 10 pigtails to seven of the mutinous sailors and three of their Polynesian companions.
Herbert Ford, director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre at Pacific Union College in California, where the pigtails are displayed, said the potential proof was "extremely exciting" and would be "solid evidence" of the men having been on Pitcairn.
He told the Press Association: "If it's found to be the real hair it would be the only real, tangible evidence that we have of the existence of the known mutineers.
"There's one grave on Pitcairn Island today, that of John Adams, and that's the only thing you can put your hands on of the nine mutineers that were there on the island, starting in 1789.
"So we are very much hoping that the researchers at King's can see if we can really find the truth about this hair."
The Bounty mutiny was led by acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who cast Bligh and 18 loyal crew members adrift on a 23ft launch.
Bligh managed to sail back to England while Christian, after a stop in Tahiti, went on to Pitcairn where he and eight others founded a colony, eventually being discovered in 1808. Their descendants still live there.
Mr Ford said written material relating to the hair offered "pretty clear evidence" about its lineage, but the scientific could provide the definitive proof that it belongs to the mutineers.
A forensic DNA group at the London university will attempt to extract DNA from the hair samples using a chemical process.
The hair shafts do not contain DNA found in the nuclei of cells, so the researchers hope they will be able to collect mitochondrial DNA, which can offer indication of maternal geographic origin.
This would potentially enable them to pinpoint whether the hair comes from someone of European or Polynesian descent, as the documentation with the pigtails suggests.
A more detailed genealogical study would then be needed to trace the maternal ancestors of the owners of the hair to link them to names in historical records, before their maternal line is then traced.
The study will try to identify the men's maternal ancestors, such as mothers and grandmothers, before looking for direct female descendants alive today.
Dr Denise Syndercombe-Court, from King's analytical and environmental sciences division, said: "First, we will have to determine whether we can recover mitochondrial DNA of appropriate quality to be analysed.
"The hairs, if from the mutineers, are over 200 years old and we have no idea what environments they might have been exposed to in the intervening time."
The genealogical research is likely to be equally tricky as civil registration in the UK did not start until almost 50 years after the mutiny, meaning records may be incomplete.
The pigtails were given to the Pitcairn study centre by the widow of a collector who bought them at a Sotheby's auction in 2000.
Alongside the locks was a handkerchief said to have belonged to Sarah, the daughter of William McCoy, one of the Bounty mutineers who died on Pitcairn in 1800, while a faded label attached to one of the pigtails suggests it belonged to McCoy.
The label also notes that "The holders of the hair have been 1: Teio, wife of McCoy; 2: Mrs Sarah Christian; 3: F. G. Mitchell. Given to FG Mitchell, 22nd June 1849 (Jubilee Day) by Mrs. Sarah Nobbs."
Mr Ford said that other than Adams' grave, it appears there is no physical evidence relating to the mutineers. An expedition around a decade ago failed to discover any sign of the grave of Fletcher Christian.
He said: "This would be really the most important piece of evidence that we had of their existence there on Pitcairn."