Salvador Dali, the iconic surrealist behind those creepy melting clocks, is about to be exhumed. He died in 1989 and left his fortune to the Spanish state. But tarot card reader Maria Pilar Abel Martinez claims to be his daughter, born after her mother had an affair with the artist in 1955. Now, the courts have agreed to dig up Dali and find out if Martinez is telling the truth.
Exhuming bodies to ID dead dads is nothing new—the first case of posthumous paternity testing in the United States was in 1994. But how do forensic scientists pull it off? Three decades after he was interred, can we really scrape enough DNA off what’s left of Dali to solve this mystery?
Paternity testing is most accurate when the subject is alive but, even a week after a putative papa has passed away, it’s fairly easy to nab a DNA sample. At that stage of putrefaction, your local forensic investigator will probably aim for soft tissue, likely the cheeks. In life as in death, a quick swab of the inside of the cheek should contain enough DNA to determine paternity.
But when a body is embalmed, formaldehyde usually damages the DNA. In that case, the investigator would need to find a source of skin untouched by embalming fluid (and the natural putrefaction process). The best place to start is a toenail or fingernail—they do not contain any DNA, but tend to protect the skin beneath them. DNA from fingernail skin is most reliable if the investigator detaches the entire nail and scrapes the skin off its underside (sorry, Dali). Hair roots are also a good source for DNA. But clipping Dali’s iconic moustache wouldn’t be enough, as hair shafts seldom contain anything but mitochondrial DNA, which only proves maternity.
Dali has been six feet under for some time, though, so forensic scientists will likely have no soft tissue to work with. That’s where Dali’s bones come in. Quite a few studies have examined the best way to isolate DNA from bones. As a general rule, you need a bone sample that weighs a minimum of two grams and, since DNA is actually isolated from bone cells called osteocytes, you’ll want the sort of bone that decays slowly and protects its osteocytes even after years of exposure. One study of skeletal remains from the World Trade Center suggests that clavicles tend to be better sources of DNA than ribs, and that long bones are superior to skulls. Other studies of mass graves in Yugoslavia have found that femur bones and tibiae are best.
The odds are pretty good that, even 30 years later, Dali’s femur is still kicking. Long bones decompose quite slowly. But even if Spain’s humid climate has done a number on Dali’s thigh bones, there’s one part of his body that will likely outlive even his iconic mustache: his teeth.
Since teeth are locked within the jawbone, they’re protected from the elements. And all it takes is one good molar and a few extant roots to yield a treasure trove of testable DNA. Teeth are such reliable sources of DNA that, even if Dali does have a few fingernails or bits of hair hanging in there, the forensic scientists that exhume him will likely head straight for his chompers.
Of course, the whole kerfuffle could have been avoided by someone having a frank conversation with Dali about his dalliances before he died. Not that there isn’t a certain poetry to exhuming the remains of Dali, master of the surreal and the nightmarish, a man who reveled in images of spindly, skeletal creatures and distorted body parts. A man whose most well-known work involves decaying, melting clocks—perhaps ironically, known as Persistence.