Nov. 28, 2012 --
The remains of Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in Paris in 2004, have been exhumed following allegations that the 75-year-old succumbed not to a stroke, according to hospital records, but rather was poisoned. Arafat's death was an event "surrounded by contention and mystery," as described by the New York Times. Though results of forensic tests aren't expected for another three months, identifying the culprits if foul play were determined to be the cause of Arafat's passing will be impossible. In other words, a conclusive result might only deepen a historical mystery. The Arafat inquiry might not yield conclusive results, but forensic scientists have proven effective at reaching hundreds of years back into history and coming back with answers.
The most direct parallel to the Arafat case in U.S. history would be the exhumation of President Zachary Taylor that took place in 1991. Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, died while in office, the second president to do so, and the cause of death was never established. Over 100 years after Taylor's death in 1850, one historian hypothesized that Taylor was assassinated by poison. Forensic tests showed that Taylor wasn't poisoned after all, but likely died of cholera or severe gastroenteritis.
A parking lot might seem like an odd final resting place for an English royal, but human remains found at a car park in Leicester may be King Richard III. Richard III died in combat in 1485, and the skeletal remains found at the parking lot do show signs of battle trauma. Results of DNA analysis following the exhumation are forthcoming.
MORE: Battle-Bruised Skeleton May Be Richard III
The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in 1601, yet his name made its way into the headlines recently after his remains were exhumed to clear up a 400-year-old mystery. Brahe, the first astronomer in history to describe a supernova, died 11 days after the onset of a sudden illness despite a history of good health. One theory suggested that Brahe had in fact succumbed to mercury poisoning by his assistant, astronomer Johannes Kepler, or at the order of Danish king Christian IV, who was incensed that Brahe allegedly carried on an affair with the king's mother. A team of forensic experts was able to disprove mercury poisoning as the cause of death, but couldn't conclusively determine what did take Brahe's life.
MORE: Danish Astronomer Not Poisoned
One of the most famous cold cases in history was that of Anastasia Nikolaevna, daughter of tsar Nicholas II. In 1918, Anastasia and the rest of her family were brutally assassinated at the height of the fever of revolution that turned Russia into a Communist state. For nearly 100 years after her death, however, rumors persisted that Anastasia had escaped the fate that had befallen the rest of her family. Several cases of Russian women claiming to be the princess emerged in the decades that followed. The discovery of a mass grave in 1991 seemed to bolster the claim after the remains were identified as belonging to the tsar's family, with two of the children seemingly absent. In 2007, a grave in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was discovered and two years later proven to be the final resting place of the two young royals.
SEE ALSO: Royals Lost and Never Found
Given that she's the subject of the most well-known portait in history, Lisa Gherardini might have a recognizable face, but her remains have proven trickier to identify. In September, Italian researchers exhumed the remains of the woman believed to be Leonardo da Vinci's inspiration for Mona Lisa. Her final resting place is a grave beneath an altar at the Convent of St. Orsola. Born in 1479, Gherardini was belonged to a noble family and married the wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo. She died in 1542, at age 63, according to church records. Work at the site wrapped in October and results of DNA analysis are expected early next year.
SEE MORE: Mona Lisa Coming Back from the Grave?
A nearly 400-year-old murder mystery involving the most powerful family of the Florentine Renaissance, the Medicis, was solved forensic anthropologists in 2010. Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his second wife, Bianca Cappello, died just hours apart following 11 days of agony from what was then a mysterious illness. His brother, Cardinal Ferdinando, depicted here, was suspected of orchestrating the deaths. Ferdinando had been at risk of being excluded from the succession and never accepted his brother's wife at court. Analysis of the remains of the fallen Medicis, however, shows that malaria in fact was responsible for the deaths of Francesco and Bianca.
MORE: Medici Family Cold Case Finally Solved
Ned Kelly might not be a household name in the United States. But in Australia, he has a reputation akin to American outlaw heroes like Billy the Kid. Famous for robbing banks, holding up towns and engaging in shootouts with authorities, Kelly killed three police officers before the law caught up with him in 1880. Sentenced to hang, Kelly was executed that same year. His body, however, was tossed into a mass grave an lost to history. A skull believed to belong to Kelly was stolen in 1978 but reemerged decades later, sparking an investigation into whether it was in fact Kelly. DNA analysis verified that the remains did belong to Kelly after all.
MORE: Body of Infamous Aussie Outlaw Found
Did former Chilean President Salvador Allende take his own life before troops stormed his presidential palace in 1973? Or did he die in a gun buttle, as some of his leftist supporters have suggested? As the New York Times reports, a court order to exhume Allende's body last year answered that question once and for all. The forensic evidence, however, only led to further disputes. The remains showed that two shots felled the former Chilean leader, one of which was fired by an assault rifle and the other possibly by a smaller gun. Although the official autopsy concludes that Allende died using the AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro, conflicting determinations allege that Allende was assassinated and later shot again to make the death look like a suicide.
Louis XVII, the last Dauphin of France before the title was restored after the French Revolution, never ascended to the throne. In 1793, his parents, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, were executed within a year after the eruption of revolution. Even before his parents' death, Louis XVII had been held in prison. Two years after their executions, Louis XVII fell ill and died in prison. Similar to the stories that followed Anastasia's death, rumors abound that Louis XVII had not died, but rather escaped. A DNA investigation carried out in 2000, however, on his remains proved that he had died in captivity as history records.
WATCH: Maggots? Flies? Corpses? All in a grisly day's work for a forensics expert.
Criminals' days may be numbered after Dutch forensic experts discovered how to accurately date fingerprints, a breakthrough that could one day let police date crime scene prints from years ago.
"It's not quite the Holy Grail of fingerprinting, but it's a very important discovery," Marcel de Puit, fingerprint researcher at the Dutch Forensic Institute (NFI), told AFP on Wednesday, hailing what he said was a world's first.
"Police regularly ask us if we can date crime scene fingerprints," he said, for instance a neighbour's prints found at the scene of a burglary.
Were they left the last time the neighbour came round for coffee or from the night of the crime?
"Being able to date the prints means you can determine when a potential suspect was at the crime scene or which fingerprints are relevant for the investigation," De Puit said.
Fingerprints leave nearly-unique marks on a surface that can be copied and compared to a database to identify a suspect, a police technique that rose to prominence in the early 1900s.
The prints themselves are made up of sweat and grease, including a complex mix of cholesterol, amino acids and proteins.
"The chemicals in these fingerprints can be analysed," said De Puit. "Some disappear over time and it's the relative proportions of these chemicals that allow us to date a fingerprint."
Previous attempts to crack the formula for dating fingerprints failed because they focused on the amounts of chemicals, rather than their relative proportions, De Puit said.
Taking into account the temperature of the original prints' surroundings, which affects the speed of deterioration, forensic experts can now date fingerprints to within "one or two days", up to 15 days.
The new technique needs to be extensively tested on real crimes scenes, leading to the creation of a database, before it can be used in prosecutions, hopefully "within a year", De Puit said.
As the database expands, so should the technique's reliability, allowing police to date fingerprints from several years before.
In the meantime, De Puit and his team are working on another revolutionary analysis technique: analysing fingerprint chemicals to determine a suspect's drug or food consumption.