Earliest surviving portrait of Richard III. Wikimedia Commons image.
An article recently published in Nature Communications confirmed the identity of the remains of King Richard III by DNA testing. This result wasn’t a huge surprise, but there were some eyebrow-raising findings along the way. More to the point, now a celebrity case study teaches us more about how to use DNA in family history research.
Prior to the genetic investigation of the skeletal remains presumed to be that of Plantagenet King Richard III, there was already mounting evidence that this was indeed his body. Genetic genealogists can take cues from this research to learn how to more fully integrate your genetic testing into your genealogy.
While these researchers were able to use radiocarbon dating and skeletal analysis methods that most of us won’t have access to, they did pore over a substantial amount of historical evidence to substantiate the last known whereabouts of Richard III. The archaeological, skeletal, and historical evidence were overwhelmingly in favor of this positive identification. But it was the genetic evidence that provided the last, ahem, nail in the coffin.
In this case the nail was made of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. King Richard shares his mtDNA with anyone who is also related in a direct maternal line to his mother. There were two such candidates found, both sharing mtDNA with the skeleton presumed to be King Richard, thus further verifying its identity. In fact, lead researcher Turi King said of the findings, “If you put all the data together, the evidence is overwhelming that these are the remains of Richard III.”
Of interesting note to us as genetic genealogists is that one of the two mtDNA samples used for reference did have one difference from the mtDNA signature shared by the other individual and the skeleton. This did not jeopardize the integrity of the results, but rather provided a good case study in how DNA does change over time.
You would think that the DNA match confirming the identity of the skeleton would be the biggest news out of this round of DNA testing. But along with the direct maternal line testing, there was also direct paternal line testing to try to verify the paternal line of the skeleton.
Genealogists worked tirelessly to identify direct paternal descendants of Richard III’s great-great grandfather Edward III and five were found and tested. Their results revealed not one but THREE different paternal lines.
While the results were not quite as expected, they weren’t exactly unexpected either, as there are plenty of royal rumors of non-paternity (click here for a summary). Watch a brief video discussion of the yDNA results here:
Again, the YDNA portion of the study provides a great case study for us in how to use YDNA, namely that it takes a lot of traditional genealogical work to find direct paternal line descendants to be tested, and that the results are conclusive, but can sometimes provide more questions than answers.
The Richard III DNA drama has started many families talking about “doing” their own DNA. Learn how with my series of quick guides (purchase all 4 laminated guides or the digital download bundle for the best deal);
Visit my website to learn about expert consultations with me. You’ll get customized guidance on which tests to order and how to maximize your results for your genealogy research.
Slave traders in Senegal. “Marchands d’esclaves de Gorée-Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur mg 8526” by Rama – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click to see image online.
Did you hear what has been discovered about the remains of three Caribbean slaves found on the island of St. Martin? Scientific techniques identified them as two males and one female, all between 25 and 40 years of age, who were buried around the mid-to-late-1600s.
But where were they from? It took DNA to help answer that question, with a process very similar to that used to identify our ethnic origins in DNA testing today.
First, scientists had to retrieve DNA from the sun-bleached, humidity-soaked remains. Their first stop: the teeth. Traditional DNA extraction and analysis methods failed, but results were found with a new method called whole genome capture. You can think of this method like unleashing an army of vigilantes on your DNA, each one tasked with bringing back a particular portion for analysis. While this method was far more successful, it still was only able to find 7% of the DNA of the best sample.
Second, they needed a reference population: a group of Africans to compare these results to in order to find a match. There is such a group assembled, which contains 11 of the likely 50 population groups that contributed to the slave trade. Keep in mind that in Africa, especially at that time, populations were not defined by geography as much as language. So when you hear African populations defined, it is often according to their relationship to one very large language group in Africa, called Bantu. There are really two groups: those that are Bantu speakers, and those who are not.
Even with the incomplete DNA and the limited reference population, the group was able to determine that two of the slaves belonged to non-Bantu speaking tribes, likely in present day Ghana or Nigera, while the third was Bantu speaking, possibly from northern Cameroon.
Finding ancient samples such as these, and having technology enough to analyze them, if even just a small part, has huge implications for the future of genetic genealogy, and family history. These kinds of genetic techniques can help place you in a genealogical relationship with another person, where your traditional genealogical methods could not. Family history, the substance and story of your relationship, inevitably follows.
I think Fatimah Jackson, a biologist and anthropologist at Howard University, said it best. “It seems to me that, as a scientist, the best way to ‘honor’ these unfortunate individuals is to allow their story to be told,” she says. “The story of a few can illuminate the condition of the masses.” We may never know the names and specific life histories of this woman and two men any more than we already do. But DNA has gotten us closer to telling at least some of their story. Click here to read the scientific study.
Are you ready to let your genetics help tell your story? Learn more about DNA testing 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.
Family history organizations and studies based on individual surnames have been around for years. They are now integrating YDNA research into their efforts. Use surname projects to enhance your paternal DNA research!
Surnames are the flagships of our genealogical research. We name our files after them and we tag our research with them. We wear our last names proudly on pins and necklaces and T-shirts.
But surnames can also be misleading. Illiteracy, language barriers, and just plain carelessness led to misspellings and alterations, not to mention those ancestors who blatantly changed their name to avoid detection.
The advent of YDNA testing has changed the way many genealogists view surnames and their role in their genealogy. Because a man’s YDNA is the same as the YDNA carried by each of the ancestors in his direct paternal line, the YDNA can act like a filter, clearly indicating which men with a particular surname, or variant, truly share a direct paternal line.
So how has YDNA testing affected family organizations that do surname research? I asked Debbie Kennett, a regular contributor to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki and Facebook page who is also involved with the Guild of One Name Studies. The Guild of One Name Studies was established in 1979 to promote public understanding of one-name studies and preserve the information obtained by those studies.
“Virtually every common surname is now the subject of a DNA project,” says Debbie, including “just over 500 Guild members who are running a DNA project. That number has jumped up considerably just in the last couple of years.”
The quality of those projects varies. Debbie tells us that a quality YDNA project includes three elements: “presenting the DNA data, recruiting people from different countries and also correlating all of the genealogy information.”
Jean Morrison, a member of the Morrison surname project, says that because of DNA testing, “identifying where in Scotland this family originated prior to coming to America ca 1728 has become a realistic goal. The Morrison Q Group has identified through Y line testing at 111 markers, 22 individuals with an MRCA (most recent common ancestor) within eight generations.” In plain English, this means that a definite YDNA pattern has been associated with her Morrison surname and with a common ancestor eight generations back.
Noel and Ron Taylor were two early adopters of YDNA testing for their Taylor family project. Their first samples were submitted to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in 2000. The former president and currently the head of the board of trustees for the Taylor Family Society, Noel says that using DNA “caught the attention of many people in our organization….It renewed great interest in the hearts of many people who had been doing research for many years [who may have] lost interest and were somewhat discouraged.” The Taylors have made significant breakthroughs with their DNA testing. They have connected several Taylor lines back to a common ancestor, verified their paper trails, and even found a line of Hodges that were actually Taylors!
It appears that YDNA is becoming part of the research plan for most family societies. But Debbie tells us that there is still much room for improvement in her organization. “Not all Guild members are running [DNA] projects. We have something like 2,700 Guild members so we are still not at the stage where the majority of Guild members are running projects.”
Besides The Guild, other organizations have been created to assist genealogists with their surname research, including a new organization just launched in November. The Surname Society’s goal is to “to build a collaborative environment where members are encouraged to develop their own approach to the investigation of their surname.”
Kirsty Grey, chairman of the Surname Society, says that DNA testing has taken a front seat role in the research of one of their founders as well as several early members. “DNA is one of the many strands of family history research (and to a greater extent, surname studies) which can connect individuals, often where genealogical research cannot.”
That really is the bottom line. DNA, especially YDNA, can tell you things about the surnames in your pedigree that you can’t learn in any other way. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to jump on the YDNA bandwagon and see what your DNA has to tell you.
I can help you! Check out my series of quick guides (purchase all 4 laminated guides or the digital download bundle for the best deal):