16th-century skeleton identified as astronomer Copernicus

Four-year investigation confirms that bones found beneath Polish cathedral are those of astronomer

The long-lost skeleton of Nicolaus Copernicus – the 16th-century astronomer who transformed our understanding of the solar system – has been found, Polish researchers have confirmed.

Forensic detective work has successfully matched DNA samples recovered from remains in a cathedral grave with hairs retrieved from a book the scholar priest is known to have owned.

The identification is the culmination of four years of investigation and centuries of speculation about the final resting place of the man who challenged the Bible and medieval teachings of the church.

Copernicus's planetary observations were the first to place the sun, not the Earth, at the centre of what is now known as the solar system. His heliocentric, cosmological revolution was condemned by Martin Luther.

Born in 1473 at Torun on the Vistula, Copernicus studied abroad and was made a canon at Frombork Cathedral, in Poland. He died in 1543. His grave was unmarked.

The hunt for his remains began in 2004. A Polish archaeologist, Jerzy Gassowski, started digging at the request of the regional Catholic bishop, Jacek Jezierski.

The following year bones and a skull were located under floor tiles near one of the side altars in the 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral in Frombork. The lower jaw was missing.

"In the two years of work, under extremely difficult conditions – amid thousands of visitors, with earth shifting under the heavy pounding of the organ music – we managed to locate the grave, which was badly damaged," Gassowski said.

This week the archaeologist revealed he is now confident, thanks to forensic facial reconstruction of the skull, that it bears a striking resemblance to existing portraits of the astronomer.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

The skull, furthermore, belonged to a man aged around 70 – Copernicus's age when he died.

"In our opinion, our work led us to the discovery of Copernicus's remains but a grain of doubt remained," Gassowski said.

Swedish genetics experts were called in to analyse DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone. The material was matched and compared to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer once owned. The tome is kept in the library of Sweden's Uppsala University.

"We collected four hairs and two of them are from the same individual as the bones," Marie Allen, a geneticist, said.

Copernicus, who studied eclipses, came up with his idea that the sun was at the centre of the universe between 1508 and 1514, and during those years wrote a manuscript commonly known as Commentariolus (Little Commentary). His theory prepared the way for such scientists as Galileo, Descartes and Newton.


Owen Bowcott

The GuardianTramp

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