A DNA case study from the Pandora shipwreck: who were the Pandora’s skeletons nick-named ‘Tom, Dick & Harry’?
Could one of them be your ancestor?
The skeletons represent 3 of the 35 deaths that occurred during the wreck of HMS Pandora in 1791.
The marine archaeologists who recovered the bones more than 200 years later had not expected to find human remains in the wreck. The skeletons were studied by medical scientists and affectionately nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry and subsequently kept in secure, climate-controlled storage at the Queensland Museum, pending developments in DNA research which would one day perhaps present a way to identify the three unknown sailors.
Water-logging and extensive deterioration had made the bones very fragile, so at the time it was not possible to identify them or link them to any of the names of the 35 men who had died during the wrecking.
It would take another decade before new techniques were developed to sequence DNA from deteriorated, waterlogged skeletal remains. The break-through came in 2011 at Bond University in Australia where PhD candidate Sheree Hughes-Stamm finally perfected a new forensic technique.
Consequently there are now 3 good DNA (Y) ‘signatures’ from Tom, Dick and Harry for comparison and it is theoretically possible to match these signatures with signatures from living male descendants – if they can be traced genealogically of course! But finding ‘matches’ will provide a means to positively identify Tom, Dick or Harry..
This project will be a ‘reverse genealogy’ – it set outs with identification of Tom, Dick and Harry as an objective.
The initial focus will be on tracing living male descendants of 6 young men from Orkney and 2 young men from London who were among the 35 men who died when the Pandora sank on the Great Barrier Reef on 29th August 1791. Each of these 35 men -or their father, if known- will be considered each name’s progenitor, around 10 generations back in time.
Is one of them your ancestor?
If so, as a direct descendant it would be fitting that you should have a say about what happens to him, i.e. how he is ‘disposed of’, for instance whether re-buried in the wreck with his shipmates, buried in a family plot or kept ‘for science’?