Did the Celts really have red hair? What colour were Boudicca’s eyes? Were all the Vikings blond-haired and blue-eyed? Such questions have always been impossible to answer with any certainty. Nowadays photography records the truth for us, but for older cultures we’ve had to rely on guesswork. Cave artists were more interested in painting prey animals than self-portraits.
But where photography cannot help us genetics can. The genetic variables that predict eye and hair colour have been known for several years. Now a new investigative process called HIrisPlex DNA analysis has isolated this information from modern and medieval remains. A team of Polish and Dutch researchers successfully analysed 21 teeth and 5 bones, including those from an 800 year old skeleton. For older samples , all that would be needed is a small amount of non-degraded DNA.
HIrisPlex DNA analysis promises to definitively answer questions on the appearance of historical figures, and yield vital information in criminal enquiries and missing person investigations. With the aid of facial reconstruction techniques, we may one day be able to gaze into the eyes of ancient people as they really were.