The key to learning about our ancestors from our own DNA is to have a lot of people tested who can all trace their ancestry to a specific geographic location. A groundbreaking scientific study has just been published in Nature by Stephen Leslie and colleagues that details the origins of the people of the UK. (Read the abstract here.) This study has ramifications for you, as a genetic genealogist, even if you don’t have origins in the UK.
Dr. Leslie and colleagues collected data from 2,039 Britons of European ancestry who lived in rural areas and knew that their four grandparents were all born within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of each other. This means that their DNA should accurately represent the DNA of individuals living in that area in the late 1800s. Using multiple fancy and advanced statistical methods, the researchers identified 17 distinct genetic groups. When they overlaid these groups on a map of the UK, what they found was remarkable. Each genetic group, with few exceptions, mapped to a very specific geographic location.
The largest cluster by far, encompassing half of those tested, maps to Central/South England. Well, the first serious settlers of Britain were from the Roman Empire whose influence in 43 AD at the time of their entry into Britain was extensive, from Spain to France to Italy to parts of the middle east and North Africa. Then around 450 AD the Angles, from modern day northern Germany and southern Denmark, and the Saxons, from Germany, invaded. According to linguistic and archeological evidence, the previous Roman culture was basically wiped out. But were the actual people destroyed, or just their culture?
To find out, the team compared the UK samples with 6,209 people from continental Europe to understand their ancestors’ contributions to Britons’ ancestry. According to the DNA evidence, the descendants of those first Roman settlers are still very much alive. In fact, the paper reports that Saxon ancestry in Central/South England is very likely to be under 50%, and most likely in the range of 10–40%, with instead a large portion of the genetics now being attributed to France and by extension, the Roman Empire.
Another interesting finding: the Viking conquerors were nearly genetically absent in most of the UK.
Very unfortunately, this data on DNA in the UK will not be a part of the reference samples at your genetic genealogy testing company. But it does demonstrate unequivocally that THIS WORKS! DNA testing can help us trace our ancestral origins and thanks to improved techniques and larger data sets, we have much to look forward to. Dr. Peter Donnelly, population geneticist at Oxford and co-author of this paper said, “History is written by the winners, and archaeology studies the burials of wealthy people. But genetic evidence is interesting because it complements that by showing what is happening to the masses rather than the elite.”
Learn more about DNA testing for family history with my Getting Started in Genetic Genealogy Quick Guide, available now in the Genealogy Gems store. In fact, I have a whole series of Guides there on using DNA for genealogy. Check them all out!
If you’re ready for some one-on-one consulting to see what DNA can tell you about your family history, visit my website to learn more.