Only Black Man in Early 1800s Iceland Left No Remains—But Now We Have His DNA

Researchers have recreated DNA of a man who died in the 1800s whose remains were lost. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Recreating a person's DNA usually involves some sort of remains, like tissues, to use as a framework. However, a team of scientists have been able to recreate the genome of a man who died in 1827 without leaving any physical evidence by studying samples of those from his family line, reported New Scientist.

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Published in Nature Genetics, the paper recounts how a team of scientists from genome research company deCODE Genetics were able to accomplish this puzzle for the very first time. The team pieced together part of the DNA of Hans Jonatan, an escaped slave who settled in Iceland, married a local woman, and raised a family before dying in 1827, the magazine wrote.

Scientists tracked down 788 of his descendants and took DNA samples of 182 family members. Some of his family members went back four to five generations. They analyzed the samples against known symbols of African DNA, which helped them re-create about 38 percent of Jonatan's mother's genome; this would be roughly 19 percent of his own DNA. They also determined that his family likely originated from the African countries of Benin, Cameroon or Nigeria.

The team is clear that they were only able to recreate the DNA due to Iceland's homogeneity. At the time Jonatan settled, he was the only person of African descent.

"There was no African ancestry in Iceland, apart from Hans Jonatan, prior to around 1920," study co-author Kári Stefánsson, of deCODE Genetics, told New Scientist.

Because of this circumstance, Jonatan's DNA was different from other Icelanders, who were of European descent. That allowed scientists to achieve this first-ever accomplishment.

But researchers are skeptical about whether the accomplishment could be replicated because the specific conditions surrounding Jonatan's life are not likely to be found again. Biologist Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom explained to Futurism that this success "seems to be the sort of analysis you could only do under particular circumstances when an immigrant genome is of a very rare type."

But scientists at deCODE believe that this kind of technique could make it possible to re-create DNA of historical figures born after the year 1500.

It's easy to imagine scary, Black Mirror-like scenarios where this technology is used to further fragment and not better society, but rest assured that scenario isn't likely to happen any time soon.