The Adventures of Science: Theo The Pipe Smoker

Anthropology along with Archeology were  interesting to me even when I was still very young. I never had a horror of human bones, I grew up next to the cemetery and was watching graves being dug out all the time. Bones were just bones to me.

So, of course, I was intrigued, when I first heard about “Theo the Pipe Smoker”. The Natural History Museum of Basle, Switzerland came up with the project of trying to identify one of the skeletons that were unearthed from the church of St. Theodor’s (hence the name “Theo”) cemetery. One of the skeletons had a very conspicuous, round hole in its teeth, a sign that the deceased was a passionate pipe smoker.

But there was more to be found out. The cemetery was in use from 1779 until 1833,  4’334 people died in that part of Basle and were registered in a church book. Theo was most probably one of them. The skeleton was that of a male person, which can be easily determined examining the pelvis. That finding reduced the number of possible names to 2’200. Next, the age. Theo was fully grown, but still relatively young 28 to 32 years of age. Only 127 names fit the bill. Another 16 names could be taken out because their burial site was known.

In the end 12 names were identified through various processes who could be Theo.

Mitrochondial DNA samples had been isolated and the lucky fact that there is a certain mutation in two places of the genome, which is shared by only about 1% of the general population  in modern Europe, ultimately lead to the point where the public can help fully identify the person. The museum has through genealogical research identified 14 persons who may have been relatives of Theo and now asks the public to provide information on these people. One of the fourteen may have a relative out there, whose DNA will show he is related to Theo and thus, by going back through genealogy, tell us who really was the Pipe Smoker of Basle.

History and Science beat CSI any time IMHO.

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9 thoughts on “The Adventures of Science: Theo The Pipe Smoker

  1. I was reading the post and it just popped into my head. 😀

    My dad was an amateur archeologist, so we spent a lot of time walking plowed fields and rooting around on high ground close to rivers and creeks, when I was a kid.

    • HoR, believe me. Being in Israel was like a dream come true. Just turn around in that country and you stumble across yet another monument from the past. Akko has been my favourite.

      Great song, btw.

  2. EV,
    Within a pairing of two individuals, there are fewer than 100 errors in the DNA transfer. Monoclonal DNA has an error rate of less than .0001% per thousand generations (Men don’t count).

    What few realize is that genes also permeate the mind. That is what promotes war.

    I am Germanic, but am more than willing to admit that the diversity of culture is a key to human success.

  3. I wonder if the person who figured out Theo was a pipe smoker, was a pipe smoker himself…or herself. 🙂

    28-32 seems a young age to have such worn teeth.

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