Scientists have offered a clue on the existence of Santa Claus by dating a bone said to belong to St Nicholas to the same century in which he died. Picture: AP Photo/Michel Euler

London - Was Santa real? Scientists have offered a tantalising clue by dating a bone said to belong to St Nicholas, the inspiration for Father Christmas, to the same century in which he died in what is now Turkey.

Oxford University researchers analysed a micro-sample of a pelvis fragment and found that it dated back to the fourth century.

Legend has it that St Nicholas, who is depicted with a white beard in icons and was said to have died in 343 AD, was widely known for his generosity -- a trait that inspired the story of Father Christmas.

"Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest," Tom Higham, co-director of the Oxford Relics Centre, said in a statement.

"This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself," Higham said.

The actual bone fragment analysed is owned by Father Dennis O'Neill, a priest based in the US state of Illinois.

But the bulk of relics said to be of St Nicholas are held in the Italian cities of Bari and Venice.

The scientists said the fragment was of the left pubis -- the lower part of the pelvis -- while the Bari collection only contains the upper part of the bone, suggesting they could be from the same person.

The relics in Venice consist of as many as 500 bone fragments, which an anatomical study has concluded were complementary to the Bari collection.

"These results encourage us to now turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual," said Georges Kazan, co-director of the Oxford Relics Centre.

St Nicholas is thought to have lived in Myra, near the modern-day Turkish town of Demre, and his relics were carried away by a group of Italian sailors.

The legend of Father Christmas began in the 16th century at a time when stories about St Nicholas became popular. Several European countries celebrate December 6 as St Nicholas's Feast Day.