Lucy and Elvis in Las Vegas! A Summary of the 20th International Symposium on Human Identification

Symposium attendees pose with an Elvis impersonatorWhat a week it’s been, filled with great presentations, good company and, of course, Elvis impersonators. I attended the 20th International Symposium on Human Identification in Las Vegas this past week to gather feedback about the publication Profiles in DNA and collect ideas for future content. There were so many great talks and posters presented; where do I start?

I guess I should start at the beginning. Donald Johanson of the Institute for Human Origins spoke about his discovery 35 years ago of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old fossilized skeleton that represented a new species in the evolutionary chain of moderns humans: Australopithecus afarensis. The discovery of Lucy helped answer a number of questions about human evolution by providing evidence that upright hominids evolved in a forest habitat, rather than a tall-grass prairie, and upright posture preceded large brains. Based on skeletal observations and measurements, Johanson and his team were able to determine that Lucy was female, stood approximately 3.5 feet tall and weighed approximately 60–65 lbs. Since this is a meeting attended by forensic analysts, Dr. Johanson presented evidence to help identify her cause of death. A single puncture mark on her pelvis and the location of her body near an ancient body of water caused Johanson and his team to speculate that perhaps Lucy was killed during a crocodile attack while gathering turtle or crocodile eggs at the water’s edge.

Another highlight of the meeting was the Interesting Cases session. In the past, this session was scheduled in parallel with other workshops, but this year the interesting case reports were presented during the main session so that everyone could attend. As the name of the session indicates, all of the cases presented were interesting. However, one presentation seemed especially appropriate for a meeting being held in Las Vegas. In his talk “Is the King Dead?”, Anthony Tambasco of the Mansfield Police Laboratory addressed a recent claim that Elvis Presley is still alive. The story starts with a doctor’s claim that he is treating Elvis Presley, who assumed the identity of his twin brother Jesse Presley after faking his death. To determine whether Elvis Presley is still alive and using his brother’s name, investigators contacted “Jesse” and performed a number of tests. Handwriting samples provided by “Jesse” were compared to letters written by Elvis, but these comparisons yielded inconclusive results. Fingerprint cards from Elvis Presley and “Jesse” did not match. DNA testing was also performed. However, finding a suitable reference sample to generate Elvis Presley’s DNA profile proved challenging. Materials submitted as reference samples included a scarf, which yielded degraded DNA and thus no suitable profile, a blood-stained pair of jeans, which yielded a mixture of male and female DNA, and tissue samples taken during two liver biopsies and Elvis’s autopsy, which yielded DNA profiles that did not match each other. None of these profiles matched that of “Jesse”. To complicate matters even more, a woman named Eliza then surfaces, claiming to be Elvis’s half sister. She underwent DNA testing, and the results were consistent with her being a half sister to “Jesse” and related to a paternal first cousin, but not a maternal first cousin, of Elvis. Thus, her DNA results could not disprove the hypotheses that she is Elvis’s half-sister and “Jesse” is really Elvis living under a different name. However, as Tambasco phrased it in an interview with the media, “many unrelated people can exhibit similar DNA markers”. The evidence could all be circumstantial, and to date, there is still no conclusive proof that Elvis is still alive.

Want to learn more about other talks that were presented? Visit the 20th International Symposium on Human Identification Discussion Board. Also, be sure to check out future issues of Profiles in DNA, where I will be publishing a summary of some of the symposium content, including the low copy number session. Also, some of the symposium content was recorded and will be available for purchase.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

One thoughtful comment

  1. I just wanted to thank you very much for this indepth article. I have already bookmarked your site, when I have more free time I am going to have to do some further browsing. Well back to my dreaming of Panama or back to the books – I wonder which one is going to win out. :)

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