Celebrating my Neolithic Ancestors

Image above, last year, holding an artifact from the Neolithic Tomb of the Sea Eagles in Orkney.

Today in this post, I am celebrating my Neolithic heritage.  Another ancestral genetics enthusiast pointed out that rather than Anglo-Saxon, for a Brit and North West European, I actually had indications of enhanced Neolithic Farmer ancestry on most ancient DNA calculators (more on that below).  I was actually quite pleased to have that pointed out, and this post explains why I love the idea of being a modern Neolithic Man.

I remember being fascinated by the past as quite a young child.  On holidays across the British isles, I craved nothing more than visits to castles.  At home in Norwich, I'd haunt the local museums.  However, a love of the Neolithic took hold during my twenties. First, a fishing and drinking tour of Ireland with my brother, took me to the Newgrange Passage Grave site in the Boyne Valley.  Awesome impact.  Then several years later, I picked up the broken butt end of a Neolithic polished flint axe head on farmland behind my cottage.

The above photo is an image of another broken Neolithic flint axe head that I recorded during a surface collection survey many years later in Thetford Forest.

This eventually pulled me into a phase of looking for more prehistoric flint, which I later formalised into the Thetford Forest Survey.  During that period, in collaboration with the Forestry Commission, Norfolk Archaeology, and Suffolk Archaeology, I recorded thousands of struck flint and ceramic artifacts - many from the Neolithic.

Above image taken at the Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria in 2006.

Any chance that I got, I'd also visit Neolithic sites across the British Isles - and continue to do so, hence last year I had a cycling tour of many late prehistoric sites in Orkney.  Absolutely love the Neolithic.  Even though an atheist, I have to confess that some of these sites give me a special vibe.  I have half-seriously told neo-pagan friends, that If I had to choose some gods, Then maybe they would be those of the Neolithic.  Something about the remote sites.

Above image - sorry for looking so bloody miserable and awful.  Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria.

Our New Understanding of the Neolithic of Europe

What I really want to write about here though, is how recent population genetics, over the past ten years, is transforming how we see the Western Eurasian Neolithic.  Archaeologists had long pondered, our relationship to the British Neolithic people, and going further back and in turn - their relationship to the earlier Mesolithic hunter-foragers of the British Isles.

What recent research of both ancient and modern DNA has so far revealed is that after the last Ice Age, hunter-foragers moved up to Britain from Southern Europe.  Meanwhile, new cultures and economies were developing in the Middle East of SW Asia.  Across the Fertile Crescent, that ran up the Levant, East Anatolia, eastwards, then down the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys - people started to settle, domesticate wheat, barley, goats, sheep, cattle and pigs.  They started to farm for the very first time.  This was the Neolithic Revolution.  The first fired ceramics - pottery was added to the recipe, along with polished stone tools.  Eventually these populations also absorbed the very first metallurgy, literacy, and town building - falling into the southern half of those river valleys in Mesopotamia.

Image above - Standing Stone at Stillaig, Argyll, Scotland.

From the Levant and Anatolia, both along the Mediterranean, and direct across the Balkans by land, Neolithic culture and farming technology spread westwards and northwards across Europe.  Population genetics now tells us that this WAS carried by people.  It was not just a transfer of culture and artifacts.  DNA from South-West Asia was strongly carried across Europe.  The Neolithic farmers were a people, with roots in the Near East.

What happened to the old European hunter-foragers?  It seems a mixture of displacement and admixture.  As the Neolithic Revolution rolled across Europe, it did pick up some hunter-gatherer DNA.  However, few of the male haplogroups.  By the time that the First Farmers reached the British Isles, they would have had an ancestry mixed between Near East Asian and European hunters.  Without a doubt, brides and perhaps slaves were taken along that long route from Anatolia to Britain.  This pattern perhaps continued when they reached the Irish and British Isles, and confronted some of the last hunter-gatherer populations of North West Europe.

Image above.  Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

All of this was fine.  The British Isles were settled by Neolithic peoples around 4,100 BC.  I've seen many of their monuments, studied excavation reports of their archaeological sites, and held many of their flint artifacts.  It was a dominant culture here for two thousand years.  Religious systems may have come and go.  They erected so many monuments here that still survive.  Causewayed enclosures, long barrows, cursuses, henges, monoliths, cairns, standing stone circles, timber circles, mounds, Silsbury Hill - and of course, the internationally renown Stone Henge.  However, we now realise that they carried much DNA from South West Asia!

They must have thought that they, their beliefs, and their social systems would last until the end of time.  We currently think that their populations and farming declined towards the end of their period.  There is a little evidence that they may have been subject to plague from Asia.  This might have weakened them for the next invasion and displacement.

Image above of Skara Brae, Orkney Neolithic settlement.

Image above of Mottistone Longstone, Isle of Wight.

The arrival of the Sons of the Steppes - the Beaker

I'll write more about these guys in a later post.  Around 2,100 BC, a new people and culture turned up in the British Isles.  Whereas the Neolithic peoples had largely originated in SW Asia, south of the Caucasus (with some European hunter-gatherer DNA picked up on the way), these new arrivals largely originated to the NORTH of the Caucasus, on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes.  Their Steppe ancestors perfected the domestication of the horse, bronze metallurgy, and wheeled wagons. The founder Steppe population has been identified by archaeologists as the Yamnaya.  They rolled into Eastern and Central Europe, where their arrival appears to have spawned the Corded Ware Culture.  Their descendants in turn appear to have spawned the Bell Beaker Culture in Western Europe.  In turn, the Bell Beaker appears to have developed into the Atlantic Seaboard Celtic Culture of fame and fashion.

The Eurasian Steppe male haplogroups absolutely dominate present day Europe.  However, again, they appear to have absorbed some women with Neolithic and even earlier Hunter-Gatherer populations into their genome.

The Three Way across Europe

Across modern Europe, we are a mixture of three distinct late prehistoric populations or genetic out-layers - from most recent to oldest:

  1. Yamnaya or Steppe
  2. Neolithic Farmer
  3. Western Eurasian Hunter-Gatherer

The above image is from CARTA lecture. 2016. Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute.  All Rights Reserved.

As can be seen above, some Neolithic DNA has survived in present day Europe.  It is strongest in Southern Europe.  Yamnaya ancestry is more of an influence in Northern Europe, although, old Hunter-Gatherer survives strong in the Baltic Republics.  The modern population closest to our Neolithic ancestors are the Sardinians.  So close, that when Ötzi, a frozen preserved Neolithic body was discovered in the Alps, his DNA was seen as so similar to present day Sardinians, that some incorrectly suggested that he had travelled to the Alps from Sardinia!

A Sardinian family while reading LUnione Sarda 

A Sardinian family.  With a mandolin.  Therefore perfect for here! By Roburq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My Neolithic Admixture

David Wesolowski's K7 Basal-rich test

Basal-rich

The Basal Eurasians are a hypothetical "ghost" population derived from DNA studies.  It is suggested that they splintered from other modern humans 45,000 years ago, presumably outside of Africa, somewhere around the Middle East.  They significantly contributed DNA to the Early Neolithic Farmers of the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia, and consequently, on to all of us modern West Eurasians.  

 David gives the English average as 26.5%.  My result is 28.8%

Global 10 Test

The recent Global 10 test, run by my friend Helgenes50 of the Anthrogenica board, resulted in:

  • 55% Baalberge_MN (European Middle Neolithic)

FT-DNA My Ancient Origins

  • 47% Farmer (Neolithic)

My Eurasia K9 ASI Oracle:

  • 27% Early Neolithic Farmer

My Gedrosia K15 Oracle:

  • 25% Early European Farmer

My MDLP K16 Modern Admixture

  • 31% Neolithic (modeled on genomes of first neolithic farmers of Anatolia)

My MDLP Modern K11 Oracle:

Admix Results (sorted):


# Population Percent
1 Neolithic 37.33


Image above.  Grimes Graves Late Neolithic flint mine complex, Norfolk

My Neolithic ancestry appears to be strong, for a Brit.  However - my Neolithic ancestors may not have all - or even at all, have lived in the British Isles.  My Neolithic ancestry may have been picked up along the way, across Europe, by ancestors as they travelled across Western Eurasia.

Anglo-Saxon? Everyone wants to be a Celt!

By Edgar "Bill" Wilson Nye (1850–1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It's true, I'll swear it.  You go on any online genetics, ancestry, or history forum, every other American, Canadian, or Australian of mainly European heritage, wants to have Irish ancestors.  Failing Irish, Scottish or maybe "Welch" will do.  People just don't want to be of English ancestry.  If a DNA test suggests British & Irish ancestry, then they pray that it's Irish or Scottish.  If it turns out to be English, well....  Let's keep that one locked in the wardrobe shall we?

We are just so out of favour, so misunderstood.  No wonder the English have a long running identity crisis.  I blame Hollywood for it, particularly that nameless Australian (now American) film maker with a chip on his shoulder about us.  Always portraying the English either as cruel, arrogant, evil upper class tyrants, or as bumbling, stupid peasants.  It's not completely true you know.  well, not about the latter.

The English are watered down Celts

Recent genetic studies suggest we are actually pretty admixed, and may actually have more "Celtic" British ancestry than we have Anglo-Saxon.  Sort of watered down Celts.  The POBI (Peopling of the British Isles) Study 2015, using quantitative sampling, suggested that the present day ethnic English have only 10% to 40% Anglo-Saxon ancestry, with the majority of our ancient heritage being in the British Isles much longer.  The Haak etal Study 2016 using qualitative evidence from ancient cemeteries in the Cambridge area, suggested that there indeed was admixture, and that the present day English are only around 38% Anglo Saxon in their ancestry.  A correlation.

A reconstructed Anglo Saxon

Don't take this one serious, but my DNA tests for ancestry are always atypical for a Brit, even an extreme for an Englishman.  I usually get only around 34% British on autosome tests.  Yet my genealogy is all South East English, and heavily rural local in East Anglia.  My DNA flavour is heavily Continental in it's flavour, with pulls towards Northern France, Germany, Scandinavia, and for some reason, Southern Europe.  I swear, I really am English!  My DNA confounds these tests.  The most logical answer is that it is population background, heavily localised in East Anglia.  Here is my mother's recorded ancestry:

Disgustingly local.  The last admixture was probably when the Danes beached at nearby Flegg.  On top of that, a fluke of genetic recombination.  Phasing suggests that I inherited from my mother, almost all of her DNA that 23andMe identifies as like French & German.  On top of that, a heap from my late father.  I might be sort of an accidental biologically reconstructed Anglo Saxon, with an embarrassingly low percentage of British Celtic ancestry!  I don't think that I'd make a good Anglo Saxon.  Crap at woodwork and farming.  Maybe I should grow back my beard?

Nah!  I look more like I'm homeless than a sword swinging warrior.

Anyway, it has put me into an Anglo-Saxon sort of mood of recent, and I feel like defending my humble immigrant ancestors.  As I've said before, I'm quite a fan of the perspective, that the Anglo Saxons were a real and significant migration event to Southern and Eastern Britain, but rather than the traditionalist view that they were a murderous army of invasion and genocide, that they were as often as not, simply farmers from around the North Sea, that were looking for opportunity.  They wanted land to farm.  They wanted to be free of their fealties on the Continent.  The collapse of Roman administration in Britain, gave them the opportunity.  The British elites were in disarray, and running in all sorts of directions.  British society was in crisis, a free fall.

I'm not saying that there was no violent conflict!  At times it would have been like this:

By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But alternatively, there could have been much more to their success.  They appear to have been incredibly successful farmers, with a culture that had adapted outside of the Roman Empire, in a very rural, illiterate, and non-monetary economy.  With the collapse of the state, they could have been incredibly successful in South East Britain.  Not because they had bigger swords to wave (something that I didn't inherit), but because they could sustain themselves well and prosper.

These guys could grow food, and pay their rent.  They knew how to work.  They provided the basis to Early English Culture and identity.

Now some photos that I took several years ago at the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village in nearby Suffolk:

My Ancestral Events Mapped

Here I map the ancestral events as recorded on my Gramps genealogical database.  These events can be baptisms, marriages, census records, etc.  The larger the dot, the more events for that particular parish.  I have modified images of Southern England from OpenStreetMap.org Copyright attribution-sharealike 2.0 generic.

My Mother's Ancestral Events.

This includes the recorded events for my mother's 134 recorded direct ancestors and siblings.  As you can see, her known ancestry over the past 330 years has been incredibly localised!  All English.  All East Anglian.  Almost entirely in Norfolk - with one line drifting back to nearby Suffolk.  An incredibly dense cluster in East Norfolk, around the River Yare in Broadland.  Sure enough second cousin and third cousin marriages have been detected in her tree.

My Father's Ancestral Events

This includes the recorded events for my late father's 116 recorded direct ancestors and siblings.  A little more travelled over the past 330 years, although I feel that the events record has a bias in research to show this - as indeed, I estimate his known Norfolk ancestry over the past 330 years to amount to at least 70% of his combined heritage.  Nonetheless, some of his lines trace back temporarily to London, then back mainly to Oxfordshire and the Thames Valley.  All South-East English again.

None of this makes my family any more special than any other family anywhere else in the World, with any type of recent heritage and admixture.  Indeed, the English are a particularly admixed population. However, in testing commercial DNA tests for ancestry, I feel that we offer a good reference sample of SE English, and even East Anglian Norfolk.

I'm particularly interested in how these commercial DNA companies are failing to discriminate ancient or population admixture, from recent (350 years) family admixture.  Some populations they are able to detect with some certainty and accuracy.  However, others such as the English, not at all.  They are unable - despite their claims otherwise, to break recent autosomal admixture on lines over the past ten generations, from earlier, sometimes much earlier population admixtures.

I'm looking forward to seeing if the new Living DNA test fares any better, with it's rich British data set.

Two Fathers and more Online Genealogy

The above photograph is of my great great grandfather, William Bennett Baxter, born at Gressenhall Workhouse, Norfolk, England, in 1846.

Well, I've finally updated my Gramps genealogical database for the first time for months.  It's grown!  It now includes details for over 1,600 ancestors and family relatives.  I have to admit, a lot of the swell is down to online genealogical research, using Findmypast.co.uk, Ancestry.co.uk, Norfolk FHS, BMD, FamilySearch.org, etc.  I DON'T ever resort to copying off other people's trees, although I do at times, when I'm stuck, check them to see how other's think, as the hints that they should be.  To be honest though, I often don't agree with their conclusions.  

I do use Search.  I do use transcriptions - but whenever the original image is available (as it increasingly is now), I do verify with it.  Quite often, transcribers get it wrong.  I do also enjoy browsing through digitalised images of parish records, looking for siblings and clues.

Two Fathers

With traditional documentary-based genealogical research, we of course cannot prove a biological line.  We can rarely identify NPEs (Non-Parental Events).  All that we can do, is do our very best to track names through family interviews, documents and records.  Wherever possible, we should verify connections, check and record sources, look for correlations.  This isn't however always possible.  The genealogist has to then decide whether they have enough evidence to connect an ancestor.

For quite some time, I was proud that I had recorded all of my ancestors up to and including great great grandparent level.  However, at great great great grandparent level (Generation 6), I had three missing direct ancestors.  All three of them were the unrecorded father's of three great great grandparents, born illegitimate in Norfolk during the 19th Century.  I had 29 out of 32 biological ancestors recorded for Generation 6.

Then recently, I cracked two of them!  At least I have one evidence for their names.  Two of my illegitimate born great great grandparents, William Bennett Baxter, and Harriet Barber, were actually a married couple.  They were both illegitimate, and had both been born in Gressenhall Union Workhouse close to East Dereham in Norfolk.  William was base-born there  to a pauper named Eliza Baxter.  That she gave him the middle name "Bennett", and there had been Bennetts in the area, always made me suspect that his biological father was believed to have belonged to a Bennett Family, but which?

Then some research online, and it was a back to basics research that cracked it.  I was sure that I had seen their 1866 marriage certificate or entry, at nearby Swanton Morley before, probably years ago.  But if I had seen it before, and I now suspect that I hadn't, then I missed the key.  They BOTH named their alleged biological fathers in their marriage register entry!  How could I have not seen this before?

William Bennett Baxter claimed that he was the son of a labourer, by the name of ... William Bennett.  Harriet Baxter (nee Barber), claimed that her father was a labourer by the name of William Barker.  It's only their word, on their marriage entry - to their knowledge, but I've accepted that testimony, and have added ancestors on those lines.  I haven't yet found much about William Bennett. But I did quickly find more on my 4 x great grandfather William Barker.  He was a shoe maker in East Dereham, the son of a master boot maker.  Perhaps his family didn't approve.  Two years later he married an Elizabeth Wales.

My Fan Chart of Direct Ancestry, updated. I now have 234 direct ancestors named.

Other New Ancestors

The majority (but not all) of my newly claimed ancestors have been Norfolk ancestors on my Father's paternal side, balancing things up rather nicely.  Some of the newly discovered branches include a substantial number of new ancestors recorded both in Dereham, Norfolk, and in the nearby village of Swanton Morley.  They were two very ancestral homes in my tree.  I've recently extended the Baxter of Dereham line back safely to the 1760's.  I've also traced more of my great grandmother Faith Brooker's (nee Baxter) tree, including her direct maternal line to a Rachael Bradfield of Dereham.  Her daughter Elizabeth was baptised there in 1745.  In 1767, Elizabeth Bradfield married our 7 x great grandfather Solomon Harris at Swanton Morley.

I've also extended the line going back from my paternal grandmother (Doris Brooker nee Smith).  I've found more of her ancestors in the South Norfolk village of Hedenham, stretching back to a James Goodram, the son of John and Lydia Goodrum.  James was baptised at Hedenham in 1780.

Finally, I've tidied a few dates on my mother's side, and even started to reassess the ancestry of my children's mother.

Here is a count of direct ancestors from a Gramps report:

Generation 1 has 1 individual. (100.00%)

Generation 2 has 2 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 3 has 4 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 4 has 8 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 5 has 16 individuals. (100.00%)

Generation 6 has 31 individuals. (96.88%)

Generation 7 has 55 individuals. (85.94%)

Generation 8 has 53 individuals. (41.41%)

Generation 9 has 44 individuals. (17.97%)

Generation 10 has 16 individuals. (3.52%)

Generation 11 has 6 individuals. (0.59%)

Total ancestors in generations 2 to 11 is 235. (11.68%)

That's enough genealogy for a while!  Living DNA report next.  Sample was activated and returned.

The Other SK1414. My Cousin in Baluchistan

By Baluchistan on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence. No, this young man is not the SK1414 tester, but the mandolinist in me found this photo kind of cool.  A young man from Makran.  The other SK1414 tester was also a male Makrani Baloch.

I'm hot on the trail of my Y or paternal line, following my FTDNA Y111 STR, then Big Y tests.  These tests analysed the DNA on my Y chromosome.  It is passed down strictly from father to biological sons.  the mutations (SNP and STR) that can be identified in the Y-DNA, can be used to assess relationship, and in some cases, to date the time of most recent common ancestry.  So, with the assistance of Gareth Henson, administrator of the FT-DNA Y haplogroup L Project, and with help from my new distant cousins, what have I learned over the past few weeks?

The Smoking Gun of Y-DNA

Between 45,000 and 13,000 years ago, my paternal ancestors most likely were hunter-gatherers, that lived in the region of what is now Iran and Iraq, during the last Ice Age.  Some sharp changes in glaciation, and cold extremes towards the end of that period, may have generated a number of adaptations, and subsequently, split new sub clades of my Y haplogroup L.

13,000 years ago (based on the Big Y test), I share a common paternal great x grandfather with a number of distant cousins, that descend from Pontic Greek families from the Trabzon region in Turkey.

Between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago (based on the less accurate STR evidence at 111 marker), I share common paternal great x grandfather with another cousin, who's paternal line Habibi, can be traced back to the 1850's in the town of Birjand, Southern Khorasan, Eastern Iran, close to the modern Afghanistan border.  This closer cousin now lives in Australia.

Human male karyotpe high resolution - Y chromosome

My Big Y test produced no less than 90 previously unrecorded or known SNP (pronounced "snip") mutations.  That might be because my Y-DNA is rare, or / and, that it is mainly found in parts of the World where very few people test at this level.  The last SNP on the roll that had been seen before, has been called SK1414.  Because now two of us have tested for this SNP, it is my terminal SNP, so at the moment (although it still has to be submitted to the YFull Tree), I can declare my Y haplogroup sub clade designation to be L-SK1414.  Only one of two so far recorded in the World.

So, who is this Y cousin that shares my SK1414 mutation?

My Baluchistan Cousin

By Baluchistan on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.  Another photo from Makran, Balochistan.

The other SK1414 turned up during an early survey, back in the early 2000s by the Human Genome Diversity Project.  It turned up in a sample of the Baluchi in Makran, South-west Pakistan.  Could this cousin be closer than the Habibi tester?  Could my Habibi cousin, from an eastern Iranian family also carry SK1414?

The Baluch, are an Iranic people, that speak Baluchi, an Iranian language that belongs, as do most European languages, to the Indo-European linguistic family.  According to the Iran Chamber Society website, they moved to Makran during the 12th Century AD.  Traditionally the Baluch claim that they originated in Syria, but a linguistic study has instead suggested that they actully originated from the south east of the Caspian region, and that they moved westwards between the 6th and 12th centuries AD in a series of waves.  No other Y sub clade L1b (L-M317) have been found in Southern Asia outside of two samples of this survey, so perhaps the tester did have ancestry from Western Asia.

Iran regions map fr

It would seem likely that I do have a number of Y cousins, most likely in the region of Eastern Iran and South-Western Pakistan.  That doesn't necessarily follow though, that our most recent common Y ancestors lived there.  As I said above, the Baluch of Makrani, Pakistan are said to have migrated from further north-west, from the Caspian Sea region.

There is a tentative suggestion of a link to the Parsi. A Portuguese STR tester with a genetic distance (based on 67 markers) of 22, has (thanks again Gareth) "a distinctive value of 10 at DYS393. In the Qamar paper this value is found in the Parsi population".  So there is just the possibility also, of the Parsi ethnicity carrying L1b from Western Asia into Southern Asia.  Perhaps this marker was picked up by a Portuguese seafarer link to Southern Asia.  It could even be the link to my English line, via the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.  A lot of speculation.  I don't think that M317 has been found yet in India.

Into England

I have found STR links with four people that carry the surname Chandler.  They live in England, Australia, and the USA.  These cousins appear to descend from a Thomas Chandler, that lived in Basingstoke during the 1740s.  That is 32 miles away from my own contemporary surname ancestor, John Brooker, who lived at the same time at the village of Long Wittenham in the Thames Valley.

Unfortunately three of the Chandlers have only 12 markers tested, and the fourth at 37 markers.  Therefore time of most recent ancestor is not accurate, but it looks as the Chandler and Brooker Y hg L testers of Southern England, most likely shared a common paternal great x grandfather sometime between 800 and 350 years ago.

That only these two lines have turned up, and that they are geographically and genetically so close, might suggest that our Y-DNA lineage arrived in Southern England around the late medieval, perhaps from between the 13th and 17th centuries AD.  It could just be through a Portuguese navigator link, or it could be through thousands of other routes.  More L-M20 testers could turn up in England in the future, that could push the arrival to an earlier date.

Today

I could have any number of cousins from south England.  The Brookers and Chandlers may well have other paternal line descendants living in the Thames Valley, Hampshire, London, or elsewhere.  I'd love to prove a Brooker from the Berkshire / Oxfordshire area, as sharing ancestry.  I believe for example, that the journalist Charlie Brooker descends from one of the Thames Valley families, although not necessarily from mine.  Do they carry the Y hg L?

My great great grandfather Henry Brooker, did not appear to have any more sons, other than my great grandfather John Henry Brooker - who in turn, only had one son, my grandfather Reginald John Brooker.

I have one Y haplogroup first cousin.  He has I believe, a son, and a grandson.

The Mighty Fan Chart of Ancestry

Recorded Ancestry for Paul Brooker

Up to the 10th May 2016

This is just a little pat on the back, for what I have so far achieved in researching and documenting my known ancestry.  I really do like these Gramps open source software fan charts.  The names go off a bit, but the concept of a fan chart for illustrating the pedigree of direct ancestry, still works well.  It quite well displays the missing gaps.  Generations 1 to 5 (from myself, up to my great great grandparents) are complete.  The first few cracks appear from cases of illegitimacy at Generation 6, where the fathers were not named.  Generation 7 is still pretty impressive, with 77% of my great great great great grandparents named.  But it then starts to fall. back, with only 10% named for Generation 10.  I suspect that this isn't far off most genealogies that have been based on paper records.  Actually I'm quite proud of what i have achieved.

Through perseverance, I have recently extended both my surname lineage, and my maternal lineage to Generation 9 (early 18th Century).  They should in theory, align with my Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups respectively. 

The database for the entire family (including that of my ex-wife's) is now up to 1,546 individuals, with 195 direct ancestors for myself, as represented by this fan chart.

And yeah yeah yeah, I know, yours goes back to Ann Boleyn, Edward Longshanks, and Ragnor Lothbrok.  Well, I've not yet found one iota of heraldric blood.  I know that it will be there.  I know that I belong to a pretty homogeneous population, and that go back far enough, we English are probably all related to each other and to these people.  Go back even further, we could state that for all people.  Back to the MRCA's.  But I actually don't care.  I'm proud to be descended from hard working people.  It is they that I am making a record for.  They were equally valuable to any aristocrat or land thief.

Ancestry and DNA Tests

I'm writing this post in response to a number of comments that I see online with regards to using a commercial DNA test, in order to ascertain ancestry.  Quite often, when someone asks how to find out their family history or ancestry, someone will come back with an answer in the form of "just spit in a vial, send it to Ancestry.com, and they'll tell you".  It's not really that simple, so I'm making this post, to explain how an ancestry DNA test can help, or not help, you discover your ancestry.  Nicely dumbed down I hope, for the beginner.

Traditional Genealogy

Traditional genealogists usually set out to create a genealogy (family history and tree), using interview techniques, artefacts, and oral memories, recorded from older relatives.  Artefacts might for example, include old family medals, or photographs.  They then extend the research, through documentary evidences, such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, church registers, census records, transcripts, electoral rolls, and military records. If they are interested in recording all ancestral information, and not merely a single line such as the surname line, then this research can go on for months, years, even decades.

What you cannot do, is to simply pay a small fee, and your entire family history drops through the letter box in a brown envelope.  It takes years of time to research, collate, and to verify a good family tree.  Most genealogy enthusiasts don't mind this, because they actually enjoy doing the research itself.  It becomes a hobby, even sometimes a passion.

However, a number of commercial DNA companies may give the general public the impression, that you now can simply pay a fee, spit or swab, and your ancestry magically appears for you on a website.  It's big business.  Does it work though?  Exactly what is genetic genealogy?

What is Ancestry and why do we care.

Ancestry can simply be defined as our descent from forbearers.  Why do we care who they were? Which forbearers or ancestors?  How many are there?  How far back?

Of course, not every one does care.  Not everyone cares about history.  But for other's how we define ourselves, our communities, and families, it does matter.  It tells us who we are, where we came from.  It defines us, gives us grounding.  It gives us identity.  Wars have often been inspired by ancestry.  At the same time, a deeper appreciation of the human family, and it's common ancestry, can be used to relate to those elsewhere.  One big family.  Discovering the immense poverty and hardships of our ancestors can help us to appreciate what we have, and to help others in need today.

So what ancestry can we discover?  For those few that merely concentrate on one patriarchal line, it's quite simple to define - the generations of a surname.  However, beyond that one narrow line of descent, few appreciate exactly how much total ancestry that we have.  Lets look at our biological ancestors at each generation:

  • 2 parents
  • 4 grandparents
  • 8 great grandparents
  • 16 great grandparents
  • 32 g.g grandparents
  • 64 g.g.g.grandparents
  • 128 g.g.g.g grandprents
  • 256 g.g.g.g.g grandparents.

These are only your 510 most recent direct ancestors, yet just those generations, will take you back to only around 250 years of family history.  Now add all of the recorded children of these direct ancestors - the great great uncles and aunts to the theoretical family tree.  You're probable going to have a tree of around 1,300 individuals.  That is just for 250 years.  You have a big family  Go back a few more generations, and it will explode before you reach far.  All of those direct ancestors though, are a part of your ancestry.  You'll most likely carry some DNA from most of them.  They are, from a biological perspective, who you are.

By the way, the number of biological ancestors will not continue to increase infinitely.  Because increasingly, you will find couples within your tree that are distant biological cousins of each other.  As this accelerates through thousands of years, that explains how all modern people around the world, all descend from a very small population around 100,000 years ago.

So before considering what DNA can do for genealogy, we need to consider which ancestors matter to us.  Do you just want to know who your biological parents, or grandparents were?  Do you want to know the names, places and social positions of your ancestors over centuries?  Do you want to know which parts of the world that your ancestors lived 500 years ago?  Do you want to know how some of your prehistoric ancestors moved across the globe, thousands of years ago?  Maybe you want to know everything.

Let's now turn to genetics for genealogy, and how DNA tests can answer some of these questions.

There are two main types of DNA tests for ancestry, although they are often incorporated together by commercial companies:

  1. The haplogroups, the Y-DNA and mt-DNA
  2. Autosomal DNA
The Haplogroups

The haplogroups are chains, or markers, that are carried on one of only two strict lines of descent.  They do not apply to your entire ancestry - just two lines.  As we saw above, we have 256 g.g.g.g.g grandparents (unless any of their descendants reproduced together).  Our haplogroups came from only two of them.  Your haplogroup does not define you.  Yet, it's quite odd, because very quickly, many genetic genealogists do relate to them, rather like a hereditary football club.  They do become an identity, only if you enthuse over them.

The Y or paternal haplogroup, follows the strict paternal line.  From father to son.  Women do not have a Y chromosome, so cannot pass it on.  It has to come from the biological father.  However, within this constraint, Y-DNA is particularly useful to genealogists.  It mutates often, both as STRs and less often, as SNPs (snips).  Because of these frequent mutations, it is useful for tracing shared descent with others.  It can also be aligned with surname studies.  The champion commercial DNA company for Y-DNA research, is Family Tree DNA.

The mt or mitochondrial (maternal) haplogroup, follows the strict maternal line.  From mother to children.  Both sons and daughter inherit their mt-DNA haplogroup from their biological mother.  However, only the daughters can pass it down.  Two downfalls to mt-DNA for genealogy.  1) The surname frequently changes, traditionally nearly every generation through marriage. 2) it doesn't mutate as frequently as the STRs of Y-DNA. It is still a useful tool, and can prove descent through the maternal line.  It can also still be used for studies of much deeper, ancient ancestry.

Autosomal DNA

This is the bulk of you DNA.  All of the snips (SNPs), that make up who you are genetically.  You receive approximately 50% from each parent, 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great grandparent.  This subdivision cannot go on forever, and indeed, once you go back much more than six generations, the approximates start to deviate, so that you may have no snips at all from a particular line that joined your family tree over 250 years ago.

The problem with autosomal DNA is that it can be such a mess.  It recombines randomly with every generation.  Therefore, it is much harder to track ancestry in the same way, that we can with the haplogroups.

So how can they be applied for genealogy:

Biological descent

Not everyone knows who their biological parents were, or where they came from.  This is the first use of DNA testing.  It can be used to find, test, or prove recent descent.  The first hurdle of genealogy.  Both haplogroup evidence, and autosomal evidence can be used to prove or determine relationship.

Cousins

Many genetic genealogists, use DNA to find distant, and sometimes not so distant cousins.  The hope is that they can link trees, share knowledge and research, perhaps copies of artefacts.  Therefore an awful lot of genetic genealogy is about tracing genetic relatives, and establishing common ancestry.

There are two main tools:

  • Haplogroup Projects.  The Y haplogroup is favoured for it's frequent STRs, and also for it's link to surnames.  Family Tree DNA projects track the STR and SNP data of it's members, tracking families, relationship, known mutations.  Project administrators at FTDNA can predict relationship to other members in the project.  Your Y cousins.
  • Shared segments.  Autosomal DNA can be used for finding distant cousins.  23andMe for example, have Relative Finder.  Alternatively customers of any commercial DNA company that gives them access to their raw data, can upload that data to GEDMATCH.  At GEDmatch, they can search for other kits, looking for lengths of shared segments (measured in cM - centimorgans) on the autosomes or X chromosomes.  The longer or more segments can be used to indicate shared ancestry.

It is important to understand, that this is not about directly tracing ancestry.  It is only about establishing shared biological ancestry, with other researchers, with which you may be able to share resources.  In the old days of genealogy, we would find distantly related researchers by browsing through annually printed surname interest directories.  Here, the same thing is happening, but we are finding people by comparing DNA.

Ancestry from Autosomes

Most commercial DNA companies providing ancestry information, now use their own propriety calculators to look at the autosomal DNA of their customers for patterns that they can relate to a number of reference populations.  23andMe for example, uses Ancestry Composition to determine what parts of the world, that the ancestors of their customers lived 500 years ago.  They predict from this in percentages of ancestry.

However, it is very much a developing art.  The problem is that genes have been randomly mixing and moving around ever since prehistory.  The customers of these DNA companies want hard facts.  They want their ancestry accurately pin pointed down to modern or ancient nation-states, or to historical populations such as the Vikings or Huns.  Ancestral DNA companies are under pressure to provide this deep ancestry.  However, can they?  Ancestral analysis of DNA can be very enlightening.  It can provide some surprises within a family history.  However, it's accuracy is exaggerated.  It is increasingly successful at predicting ancestry from a particular corner or end of a particular continent.  But it cannot for example, accurately tell French, British, and German ancestry apart to any high accuracy.  It can recognise some populations better than others.  It cannot tell anyone if they had Viking ancestry.

Ancient Ancestry

This is a particular value of the haplogroups.  As we accumulate more and more data on more mutations, as we expand the recorded database, and as we relate that to more ancient DNA extracted from referenced and dated ancient human remains, so we will be able to better explore the population genetics not only in history, but deep into prehistory.

However, it is also becoming increasingly realised, that patterns of ancient admixture can also be detected within the autosomes.  Although Autosomal DNA ancestry calculators claim to reveal relatively recent admixtures over the past 500 years, it is becoming clear that these are being confused by much older patterns of admixture.  These patterns can now be explored and probed on a number of GEDmatch programs.  People can compare their DNA with the kits from ancient DNA, or predict just how much of their ancestry was likely "Western Hunter-Gatherer, or "Early Neolithic Farmer".

In addition, more DNA companies are now measuring for much more ancient admixture with archaic populations such as the Neanderthals.

Conclusion

Genetic Genealogy is fun, great fun.  It is not however, a quick and easy replacement for traditional genealogy.  Unless you get lucky with some comparative Y-DNA in a project, it is not going to directly tell you the names or social status of any ancestors.  It can give you a phylogenetic tree, but not any kind of family tree that you can bore other family members with.

Genetic genealogy can provide some tools to some researchers.  It can test biological relationship.  It can be used to predict some of your ancient history.  For most researchers, particularly those that are able to interview many local family members, search local grave yards, access archives and records - it has no, or little value to the pursuit of collecting ancestors.

I personally love to explore my genetic genealogy. But it is documentary research that provides the names.  Genetic genealogy for myself, is more about the long and ancient journey.