The recent Smithsonian Channel documentary, "The General Was Female?", piqued my interest for a few reasons. It attempted to solve a historical mystery using ancient DNA, and involved identifying the remains of Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalryman who served not only in Poland, but also in America during the American Revolution, during which an ancestor of mine served under him. The results, as you may have already guessed by the documentary's title, caught the attention of several news outlets (NYT, NBC, etc.). To get an idea of the findings, check those news reports, or better yet, this page from Georgia Southern, the university that has been working on it with help from the Smithsonian Channel.

So, I checked out the documentary, and overall, I'd recommend it. The results are surprisingly convincing at this point. The short summary of the results so far is that an mtDNA match confirms that the remains at Pulaski's memorial are maternally related to a grand-niece of his, and that is particularly amazing because the skeleton has a feminine pelvis. There are also some other aspects of the skeleton consistent with it being Pulaski (approximately the same age, scars from horseback riding, no evidence of birthing). The documentary also does a pretty good job of explaining why this isn't a 100% certainly at this point, like, what if it's someone who coincidentally matches mtDNA? They even discuss complications with contamination of ancient DNA. I doubt that the study of the remains are going to stop with this, but the documentary is worth checking out for anyone interested in these early results.

There are a few concerns that I have with the documentary. On the genetics side, the filmmakers are obviously less versed in DNA studies than the scientists, with some obvious errors like displaying a map of Y-DNA haplogroups when they're talking about mtDNA. I also wish they had spent more time with the scientist when he was discussing the resolution of the mtDNA match, because it was left fairly unclear, with him alluding to how much of "the population" has the markers that matched (world population? population of Georgia? were there any mismatches?). I also don't think they mentioned the haplogroup specifically. But the filmmakers probably figured that most people watching wouldn't care about the specifics.

The filmmakers also didn't seem to understand Pulaski's historical legacy very well. They really went out of their way to try to paint him as some sort of great general, but that wasn't really his legacy at all. He was actually kind of a terrible general, with his real contribution being visionary in nature, offering many suggestions to modernize the young American cavalry, which was put to great use by more capable commanders like Armand. In their attempt to find a great victory commanded by Pulaski, they actually used Prevost's advance on Charleston as an example, summarizing it like: "Pulaski led a cavalry charge against a superior British force, and later, the British retreated!" But that skips over the part where Pulaski had bungled the ambush that was supposed to follow the charge, he did nothing to stop the British, and Gen. Moultrie had to pick up the slack (source).

The filmmakers also thought it was a good idea for some reason to get a modern intersex person who looks nothing like Pulaski to play dress up as Pulaski. Feel free to fast forward through those parts.

But all that aside, I think I'm too excited that people are taking an interest in fascinating things like ancient DNA and Revolutionary War history for me to get too bogged down in the problems with the documentary. Recommended anyway.