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After 75 Years, National Geographic Adventure Solves Mystery Of Lost Explorer


DNA Results Identify the Body of 20-Year-Old Everett Ruess

NEW YORK - In a joint announcement today with National Geographic Adventure magazine, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder released the results of a DNA test that positively identifies the remains of famed explorer and artist Everett Ruess, who disappeared in 1934, solving a mystery that has baffled law enforcement for more than 75 years.

Dr. Kenneth Krauter, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, presented test results that compared the DNA of a femur found in the Utah desert to saliva samples taken from four of Ruess’s nieces and nephews, the closest living relatives. The test examined the inheritance of some 600,000 markers using gene chips from the Affymetrix Corporation and found that the saliva samples and the DNA extracted from the femur share approximately 25 percent of those markers by inheritance. Nieces and nephews are expected to hold about one-quarter of their genetic markers in common with an aunt or uncle. The test provides essentially irrefutable evidence of a close blood relationship between the Ruess family DNA and the bone DNA. Subsequent tests comparing the bone DNA with 50 unrelated people confirmed the results, with considerably less than 1 percent of markers shared in this way.

“This was a textbook case,” said Krauter. “We had a large number of markers and, when comparing the bone DNA and the Ruess samples, the mode of inheritance of those markers was exactly what you’d expect for the relationship between an uncle and a niece or nephew.”

The DNA confirmation is the capstone of a yearlong investigation by National Geographic Adventure magazine and its contributing editor David Roberts. Ruess, a writer, artist and icon of the American Southwest, was last seen near Davis Gulch in Utah in 1934. Since his disappearance, at age 20, scores of searchers have canvassed the area, and his legend has grown to rival that of other lost American explorers, such as Amelia Earhart. In 1942 author Wallace Stegner took measure of Ruess, comparing him to a young John Muir, and in 1996 Jon Krakauer devoted 10 pages of “Into the Wild” to Ruess. The complete story of Ruess, his disappearance and the discovery of his gravesite appears in the April/May 2009 issue of National Geographic Adventure, currently on newsstands.

The key to breaking the case came from an unlikely source: Denny Bellson, a traditional Navajo, who was unaware of the Ruess mystery prior to helping to solve it. In May 2008 Bellson’s sister, Daisy Johnson, relayed a story her grandfather had told her of a young Anglo who was murdered in the Utah desert. Bellson found the site soon after.

The grave was excavated by Ron Maldonado, the Navajo Nation’s supervisory archaeologist, and -- with permission from the family -- the remains were handed off to forensic anthropologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The anthropologists, Dr. Dennis Van Gerven, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his graduate student assistant, Paul Sandberg, used fragments of skeleton to create a biological profile of the victim.

“The shape of the pelvis told us that the individual was male,” Sandberg reports in the April/May issue of National Geographic Adventure. “The degree of developmental maturity of the bones told us that he was between the ages of 19 and 22.”

The anthropologists stabilized the fragile bone pieces, which were sun-bleached and eroded after decades of exposure, and painstakingly rebuilt a portion of the skull. They then superimposed an image of the remade skull on photographs of Everett Ruess taken in 1933, shortly before his disappearance. “The bones match the photo in every last detail,” Van Gerven said after finishing the analysis. “Even down to the spacing between his teeth.”

The results of the DNA test not only confirm the forensic work of Van Gerven and Sandberg but validate Navajo oral tradition. “If this were going before a court of law, you’d want to build a case,” said Van Gerven. “That’s what we’ve done here, with Navajo oral tradition, the forensic analysis and now the DNA test. We can be certain that this is Ruess.”

The investigative team also included Matt McQueen, assistant professor, Institute of Behavioral Genetics, University of Colorado at Boulder; and Helen Marshall, research assistant, molecular, cellular and developmental biology, University of Colorado at Boulder.

National Geographic Adventure, winner of four National Magazine Awards, is the fastest-growing magazine in the outdoor category and the ultimate guide to the adventure lifestyle. Published eight times a year, with a rate base of 625,000, National Geographic Adventure has 2.5 million readers. It is available by subscription (800-NGS-LINE) and on newsstands in the United States ($4.99) and Canada ($6.99). Its editorial mission supports National Geographic’s global mission to inspire people to care about the planet. The magazine’s Web site is


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