Luke the Evangelist
Luke the Evangelist
Luke the Evangelist is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons.
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As a follow up of the mtDNA Haplogroup H tutorial, lets take a look at a fun topic and see how anthropologists have used mtDNA to help solve historical questions.  Let's examine some historical figures who may have belonged to Haplogroup H, one of the largest European Haplogroups. 

Case Study #1:  James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern
Case Study #2:  Empress Feodorovna
Case Study #3:  Luke the Evangelist
Case Study #4:  Decendents of Maria Theresa

Case #3:  Luke the Evangelist

Who was he?

Luke the Evangelist is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons and his feast day is October 18.  He is said to be the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke was born in the city of Antioch (an ancient city in the Roman province of Syria, present day Antakya, Turkey).  He died around A.D. 150 at the age of 84 years in Thebes, the capital of Boeotia, Greece. 

What were the anthropologists trying to find out? ie why was his DNA tested?

Although the body of Saint Luke was initially buried in Thebes, it was later transfered from Greece to Constantinople (capital of the Byzantine Empire, present day Istanbul, Turkey) during the second year of reign of emperor Constantius around A.D. 338.  The body was transferred a second time around A.D. 1177, this time from Constantinople to its current resting place in Pauda, Italy. 

Figure 1:  The transfer of the body of Saint Luke

Historians have long questioned the identity of the body attributed to Saint Luke that now lies in Padua, Italy.  In particular, they wonder whether the body may have been replaced in Greece or Turkey and are curious about whether the body was of Syrian origin (the location of St. Luke’s birthplace) or of Turkish or Greek origin (the locations where the body may have been replaced).  Using modern DNA technology, anthropologists set out to answer this question by obtaining DNA samples from the body attributed to Saint Luke and comparing it to the mtDNA type of population samples from Syria, Turkey and Greece to see if they can determine the most likely geographic origin of the body.

Who’s who in researching the history of Saint Luke:

The main research groups studying this area are:

  • Vernesi et al from the Department of Biology, University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy
  • Caramelli et al from Institute of Anthropology, University of Florence, Florence, Italy
  • Simoni et al from Genetics and Biometry Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Malaspina et al from Department of Biology, University of Rome, Rome, Italy
  • Novellotto et al, Department of Biology, University of Calabria, Arcavacata di Rende, Italy
  • Marin et al, Institute of Pathological Anatomy, Univerity of Padua, Padua, Italy

Table 1:  Top peer reviewed research publications for Saint Luke

This table lists the most significant papers for Luke the Evangelist’s DNA profile in peer reviewed journals, with links to access the original publications. 

These papers provide the extent of what is known today about the DNA type of Luke the Evangelist and provides answers to the question of whether the body attributed to Luke the Evangelist belongs to a Greek or a Syrian.

Name of Scientific Article Scientific Journal
Genetic characterization of the body attributed to the evangelist Luke Vernesi et al University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy Click here to view and download a copy of the original publication Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Nov 6;98(23):13460-3. Epub 2001 Oct 16.

As new papers become available, they will be added to this list.

Investigating the case:  Collecting a DNA sample from the body attributed to Saint Luke and collecting DNA samples from individuals from Greek and Syria:

The first step in solving the mystery is to decode the mtDNA of the body attributed to Saint Luke.  Once the mtDNA code is known, it can be compared to the mtDNA code from individuals from different parts of Europe to gain clues into the ancestral origin of the body. 

First step:  Collecting DNA from the body attributed to Saint Luke in Italy:

What was collected?  A whole canine tooth, a tooth root and some bone fragments were collected from a sarcophaagus containing the body traditionally attributed to St. Luke.  Only the whole canine tooth contained sufficient DNA to perform the DNA test and subsequent studies focussed on DNA obtained from the tooth.

What were the results? 

Name Sample type Sample quality HVR1 Region HVR2 Region Coding Region Publication
Evangelist Luke Tooth sufficient sample quality 16235, 16291 Not tested Only tested for SNP marker 7028.  Results indicate 7028 positive Vernesi et al, 2001

The researchers sequenced the HVR1 region of the mtDNA extracted from the tooth.  No analysis was performed on the HVR2 region.  The researchers also tested a single SNP marker, namely marker 7028 from the coding region of the mtDNA.

The next step:  Gathering mtDNA from individuals from Syria, Greece, and Turkey

Next, the researchers obtained the mtDNA HVR1 sequence for individuals from Syria, Greece and Turkey for comparison with the results of the mtDNA from the body attributed to Saint Luke.

Location collected # of individuals tested
Syria (Arabic-speaking northern Syrians) 49
Greece 48 (30 from Attica and 18 from Crete)
Turkey 96

What was concluded from the results?

Upon comparing the HVR1 region of the mtDNA obtained from the body attributed to Saint Luke against the HVR1 region of the mtDNA from individuals currently living in Syria, Greece and Turkey, the researchers found the closest match to individuals from Syria.  The researchers claimed that statistical interpretations of the data suggest that the match to individuals from Syria was three time greater than the match to individuals from Greece, and the also detected a slightly closer matching frequency to people from Syria versus people from Turkey.  The results of this study indicate that the body is most likely of Syrian origin, the original birthplace of Saint Luke, thus helping to dispel theories that the body was replaced which it was transfered to Greece or Turkey.

Further studies comparing more regions of the mtDNA, including the HVR2 region and coding region as well as studies comparing the DNA from the body to a larger group of people from Syria, Greece, and Turkey would increase the power of this study.

The aftermath:  What has happended since this study was completed?

With the mtDNA HVR1 region of Luke the Evangelist known, amateur genealogists from around the world have used the data to compare to their own familites to see if they have any ties to Luke’s maternal family line.

Although no in depth haplogroup analysis was performed by the original scientists, amateur genealogists have tried to use the data from the study to determine the mtDNA haplogroup of Luke the Evangelist, stating that he belongs to haplogroup H.  Let’s take an in depth look at the raw data and see how accurate they are.

Step 1:  Click here to download and print the mtDNA Haplogroup map so that you can follow along with the discussion.

Step 2:  Identify the presence and absence of Saint Luke’s HVR1 markers on the map.

Saint Luke has two markers in his HVR1 region, namely 16235 and 16291.  On the map, all HVR1 markers are blue.  Starting from the CRS, move outwards and cross off all of the HVR1 markers that Saint Luke does not have, circle all of the markers that he does have, and put a question mark next to the markers that have not been tested:

The results of the HVR1 test helps to eliminate the haplogroups that Saint Luke definitely does not belong to, and shows that Saint Luke must belong to either haplogroup R, Pre-HV, HV, or H.  However, the results of the SNP test for coding region marker 7028 indicates that Saint Luke is positive for the 7028 marker, which brings him away from haplogroup H, towards haplogroups HV, Pre-HV, or R. 

Region tested Marker Result Conclusion
HVR1 Absence of 16189 not likely haplogroup B
HVR1 Absence of 16304 not likely haplogroup F
HVR1 Absence of 16126 not likely haplogroup J and T
HVR1 Absence of 16223 Likely descendant of R branch (includes B, F, J, K, P, T, U, Pre-HV, HV, H, Pre-V, and V)
HVR1 Absence of 16224 and 16311 not likely haplogroup K
HVR1 Absence of 16249 not likely subclade U1
HVR1 Absence of 16051 and 16129 not likely subclade U2
HVR1 Absence of 16343 not likely subclade U3
HVR1 Absence of 16356 not likely subclade U4
HVR1 Absence of 16270 not likely subclade U5
HVR1 Absence of 16172 and 16219 not likely subclade U6
HVR1 Absence of 16318 not likely subclade U7
HVR1 Absence of 16298 not likely haplogroup Pre-V and V
Coding region 7028 Positive for 7028 marker Less likely haplogroup H

Based on the results of Saint Luke’s mtDNA test, it is impossible, even possibly erroneous, to conclude that Saint Luke belongs to haplogroup H since there is not sufficient information from the HVR1 test results to reach that conclusion. 

The results of scientific studies to date show that Saint Luke can belong to any one of the following Haplogroups:

  • HV
  • Pre-HV
  • R

The presence of marker 7028 brings Luke away from haplogroup H, but further studies would be required in order to exclude H.

In conclusion, it is premature or even erroneous to conclude that Saint Luke belongs to haplogroup H, and data so far suggests that Saint Luke more likely belongs to HV, Pre-HV, or R.  Further studies would need to focus on markers 11719 and 14766 in the coding region, and 73 and 263 in the HVR2 region, which would provide a conclusive determination of which haplogroup Saint Luke actually belongs to.

To follow are other notable people in history who belonged to mtDNA haplogroup H:

Descendents of Maria-Theresa
Empress Feodorovna
James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern

Need to cite this tutorial in your essay, paper or website? Use the following format:

Luke the Evangelist. Genebase Tutorials. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from
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