A new study on DNA evidence on the corpse of a woman kept in an Portuguese church in Goa, India suggesests that the lady is likely identified with a brave Georgian Queen who lost her life after refusing to become a member of a Persian ruler’s harem.
In the beginning of the 17th c. AD, the Persian ruler Shah Abbas I conquered the Georgian Kingdom of Kakheti, taking its leader Queen Katevan, as a prisoner to Shiraz, modern day Iran. After a decade of slavery, in 1624 Ketevan was forced by the king to join Islam and become a member of his harem. Her refusal led to her torture and execution on September 22, 1624. Shortly after, Ketevan the Martyr was canonized as a Saint of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Still, what happened to her body remained a mystery. Legend has that before her death, she had befriended two Augustinian friars who, after her execution, managed to exhume her relics and carry them out of Persia. According to a Portuguese document, the Saint’s remains reached India, where they were kept in an Augustinian church in Goa, in a black sarcophagus.
Early attemts to recover the body failed as the church itself and the convent it formed part of suffered damages alongside the centuries. Starting in 2004, the biologist Niraj Rai and his colleagues excavated an area they believed contained the remains and found a broken arm bone and two other bone fragments, as well as pieces of black boxes.
As reported by LiveScience, to find out if the bones belonged to the martyred queen, the researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA, or DNA found only in the cytoplasm of an egg that is passed on through the maternal line. The arm bone once belonged to a female with a genetic lineage, or haplogroup, known as U1b, the analysis showed. In a survey of 22,000 people from the Indian subcontinent, the researchers found none with U1b lineage. By contrast, the lineage was fairly common in a sample of 30 people from Georgia.
The other two bones showed evidence they were part of genetic lineages common in India, which supported documents suggesting the queen’s relics were stored in a room with the bones of two local friars.
“The complete absence of haplogroup U1b in the Indian subcontinent and its presence in high-to-moderate frequency in the Georgia and adjoining regions, provide the first genetic evidence for the [arm bone] sample being a relic of Saint Queen Ketevan of Georgia,” Rai told LiveScience.
“It is a bone presumed to be of the queen and will remain so until its DNA can be compared to that of preferably living relatives and if not available dead relatives,” says Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who was not involved in the study, referring to nuclear DNA that is in all the body’s cells. Until that point, the conclusion is based on statistics. Those statistics strengthen the idea that the bone belongs to St. Ketevan, but aren’t strong enough to positively identify the remnant, Cassiman said.
The study has been published in the journal Mitochondrion.