Finding the Tsar and his Family

DNA Evidence Confirms that Two Missing Romanovs Have Been Found

Scientists have used DNA testing to confirm that two recently discovered bodies were the missing Romanovs. Now all seven members of the family of Tsar Nicholas II have been identified. None escaped the family's execution in 1918.

A Little History

At the end of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Tsar Nicholas II gave up his crown. He, his wife, their five children, and four servants were then exiled to Yekaterinburg Russia.

The entire group was said to have been executed in 1918 and buried in an unmarked grave somewhere nearby. In the late 1970's, a grave was found that contained nine bodies. DNA testing showed that five of the bodies were related to one another and were almost certainly the Tsar, the Tsarina, and three of their daughters. (The other four were most likely the four servants who followed the Romanovs into exile.)

The whereabouts of the missing son and daughter remained a mystery. There were claims that they had somehow escaped. There were even women who claimed to be Anastasia, one of the missing children.

Then, in 2007, two bodies were found near the first mass grave. They were shown to be a young boy and girl. And subsequent DNA testing showed they were almost certainly the missing Romanovs.

What DNA Testing Showed

Back in the early 1990's researchers did extensive DNA studies on the first five bodies. The researchers looked at three different kinds of DNA to show that:

  1. The bodies were four females and one male
  2. They were all related
  3. The male was related to the Romanov family
  4. The females were related to the Tsarina's family

This latest study did DNA testing on the two new bodies (as well as additional studies on the previous five). The researchers looked at the DNA of the two new bodies and showed:

  1. They were a male and a female
  2. The boy was related to the Romanov family
  3. The female was related to the Tsarina's family

All of this taken together provides very strong evidence that the occupants of the two graves were the Tsar, the Tsarina, and their five children. Mystery solved.

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How the DNA Testing Worked

The researchers looked at three kinds of DNA evidence to establish all of these facts. They looked at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the Y chromosome and autosomal DNA. Each kind of DNA has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Each cell has a lot of mtDNA and it passes unchanged from mother to children. Y chromosome DNA passes unchanged from father to sons. And autosomal DNA has the most information about someone's parents.

Mitochondrial DNA Testing


DNA from mitochondria like this
one is useful for identifying
relationships on the mother's side
of the family.

MtDNA is used in these sorts of historical studies because it changes little from generation to generation and because there is so much of it. Instead of the usual two copies per cell, there can be thousands of copies of mtDNA. This makes studying it much simpler.

Because mtDNA passes unchanged from mother to children, it can be used to quickly identify who is related to whom in one line on mom's side of the family. In this case, six of the seven people shared mtDNA with each other. The adult male did not.

This is what is expected from a family. The mom and her children will share the same mtDNA. Dad will have his mom's mtDNA.

MtDNA can also be used to find more distantly related people. For example, the Duke of Fife and Princess Xenia Cheremeteff Sfiri were related to Tsar Nichols II through his mother. The adult male in the grave and these two royals share the exact same mtDNA. This definitely links the male to Tsar Nicholas II.

The children and the adult woman all share mtDNA with HRH Prince Phillip. The Tsarina was related to Prince Phillip through her mother.

So the female was of the Tsarina's family and the male was of the Tsar's family. Of course, this does not prove that this is the Tsar and Tsarina. Because mtDNA doesn't change much generation to generation, a lot of people can share the same mtDNA.

The researchers searched a number of mtDNA databases and could find no matches for the mtDNA from the grave. This suggests that the mtDNA of the Tsar and Tsarina's families is not all that common.

Even if their mtDNA was fairly common, the circumstantial evidence would still be very strong for the occupants of the graves being the Tsar and his family. If not, then the father would have to be related to the Tsar and the mother to Tsarina. And they would have had to have had four daughters and one son. And to have been killed together execution style in the right place at the right time.

Y Chromosome

The researchers also compared the Y chromosomes of the man from the first grave to the boy in the second. They matched perfectly.

The Y chromosome is like mtDNA in that it passes from generation to generation virtually unchanged. But unlike mtDNA, the Y chromosome passes from father to sons.

The fact that the man and the boy share the same Y chromosome tells us that they are both related by a common male ancestor. The simplest possibility is that they are father and son. But they technically could be uncle and nephew or even more distantly related.

The researchers compared this Y chromosome to a known distant cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. The two matched. So the man and the boy were related to Tsar Nicholas II through a paternal line.

Autosomal DNA

Autosomal DNA just means all of the DNA that isn't mtDNA, Y or X chromosome. In other words, it is the other 22 pairs of chromosomes.

These are the chromosomes that can change from generation to generation. But they can still be useful to study if scientists just look at small parts of them.

The researchers essentially used this DNA to do a paternity test on the family. The results were that the odds of the man and the woman being the parents and the five children being theirs was around 4.36 trillion to 1. This strongly indicates that the seven bodies were all members of the same family.

The Evidence: A Summary

Two separate graves were found within 75 yards of each other. The graves contained a total of eleven bodies. DNA and anatomical evidence indicated that there were four female children, one male child, four men and two women. This was the composition of the Tsar's family and servants who were exiled together.

DNA evidence showed that seven of these people were related -- the man, the woman, the four girls and the one boy. Again, this was the composition of the Tsar's family that went into exile.

DNA evidence also showed that the man was related to the family of Tsar Nicholas II on both the mother's and the father's side of the family. And that the woman was related to the Tsarina on the mother's side of the family.

The Y chromosome is useful
for identifying relationships on
the father's side of the family.