While waiting for my 23andMe DNA results to process, I've returned to researching some of my genealogy, after a very long break from it. I carried out most of my family tree research over twenty years ago, before Internet search facilities.
A few thoughts on commercial genetic profiling for ancestry
Let me just expand on my newcomer take on commercial genetic profiling. Although I have finally subscribed to a genetic profiling service, I have been aware of the criticisms of such companies, particularly with regards to their claims to map ancestry.
Commercial genetic profiling companies, that offer services direct to the individual, all appear to have their markets in North America, particularly in the USA (where they all seem to be based) There are many millions of people in the New World, that feel disconnected from their heritage and family roots. Grandpa said "we came from Poland", an Aunt said that "we had a Cherokee princess in the tree", a cousin claimed that great great grandma was Italian. Of course, the traditional answer is to trace your ancestry on paper, using genealogical methods. It is very time laborious, can take many years, and can incur an expense in order to access many documents and many different archives. As a hobby, it never ends. And then there are dead ends. Genealogy is actually a little bit of a misnomer, as it traces records of descent rather than genes, and we don't know who really cheated, or what skeletons have been lost in the wardrobe. People lie, or even make mistakes when they fill in paternity forms.
So it seems that for those interested in their roots, genetic profiling not only tells a truth that paper genealogy does not, but it is far easier, faster, and in the long term, cheaper. Genetic profiling companies have done their market research, and can sniff a profit. This is a big and growing market, as people become further distanced from their roots by the acceleration of globalism. People want to know who their forbearers were!
However, and this is what concerns me - can these companies really, honestly, deliver ancestry?
I'm new to it all, but I can see where some customers feel a bit robbed. They want what they call Deep Ancestry, to know if they are descended from traditional historical groups such as the Celts or the Vikings. They sometimes want to know exactly which European countries that their ancestors came from. "Was it Serbia or Slovakia?". Some of the customers at 23andMe on their forums get rather upset that the company doesn't provide this service, but when judging autosomal evidence, merely indicates which regions of Europe might be involved. Britain is lumped in with Ireland for example. They want to know more than that. Some other companies do promise more definitive results, but are they really honest? Some third parties will allow you to upload your data, then use some computer wizardry to give you your more precise results.
But is it all really good science? My suspicions is that it is not.
There are two problems.
- As I have raised with my recent posts on the Anglo-Saxon origins, there are many origin myths within traditional histories. People such as the Celts were not ever even a biological population. History is written by victors, and has frequently been corrupted in order to make political points that are now lost on us. For all too long, we have seen history as consisting of one biological population against or replacing another, when the truth that keeps emerging, is that of people taking on new cultural identities, and of genetic admixture.
- Humans like to wander, and they like to have sex. Human genes have been wandering all over Europe since prehistory. They are mixed up through admixture. Genes have a limited appreciation of the borders of nation-states - borders which are often modern political constructs.
I'm saying that we Europeans are all mixed up. There has been very little isolation, and a lot of immigration. You cannot divide us up into neat little sub races. It's a 19th/20th Century racist fantasy.
That is autosomal information. Each generation back, we double our lines back. I have four grandparent, eight great grandparents, sixteen g.g grandparents and so on. It doesn't multiply forever of course, local genetic pooling kicks in, what some might call inbreeding. I have a pair of ancestors on my mother's side, that are my g.g.g.g.g.g grandparents twice over. Two of their great great grandchildren that were 3rd cousins to each other married. This sort of event will increase as you go back into your ancestry, until we all trace our ancestry back to a small population of anatomically modern humans some 70,000 years ago - give or take the odd Neanderthal or two.
Autosomal evidence can be really hit and miss. It's all of that general DNA from your mixed up ancestry. Under the natural law of random selection, it's quite easy as I understand it, to lose any and every SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) from some quite recent ancestors. Every reproduction randomly dumps half of your ancestor's combined DNA. Please tell me if I misunderstand this, I am no expert. I've seen claims on profiling forums that your recent ancestry up to between 300 and 500 years can safely be provenanced from your autosomal DNA. I smell a fish. I'm really not convinced. If someone that knows better can convince me otherwise, please do so.
When I get my results, I'm not expecting no surprises. I'm expecting autosomal ancestry of British/Irish, maybe some confusion with Scandinavia, and French/German, due to the general Western European blur. If I do get a surprise though, well that would be interesting.
The two haplogroup markers that I am more interested in, than the general autosomal ancestry, are of course the mtDNA and the Y chromosome. I'm blessed being male, women only get the mtDNA. These two markers stand out of the general ancestral DNA. The Y chromosome represents my strictly paternal lineage. My mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) represents my strictly maternal lineage. They both mutate very rarely, at known rates and therefore have been used to successfully map origins. They have been used for example, to mark waves of movement across Eurasia, and original movements into Europe. They have been used to date Y chromosome Adam, and Mitochondrial Eve. Not that humans nor our hominin heritage have ever been reduced to a genetic bottleneck as severe as one couple, but the ancient populations where all present day human populations can trace shared their direct paternal / maternal lineage ancestry. For Y chromosome Adam it is 300,000 to 200,000 years ago. For Mitochondrial Eve it is 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. No, they were not a couple, there was never a first couple.
Y chromosome and mtDNA are far more interesting than the general autosomal DNA, even if they represent only two narrow lines of descent. As we increase our knowledge and data, so we can start to say that a particular haplogoup mutated from another, and passed most likely, through a certain route towards you.
My mtDNA and paper genealogy
I've finally reached the point of this post. Yesterday, I thought that I'd give Internet genealogy a crack. I've done very little genealogical research for many years. I found out a few new details about my enigmatic paternal great grandfather. In 1939, I now know the address in Kent, where he and his partner Mabel Tanner were living. I also learned that at that time, he was employed as a clerk and a civil servant, apparently by the Post Office in their engineering departments. I imagine a bit of a come down for a guy that served for years as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, including throughout WW 1. I do now remember one late aunt saying that she recalled he was something to do with the Post Office.
I wanted, with my genetic profiling in mind, to see if I can learn anything new on my Y chromosome / mtDNA lines, or in paper genealogical terms, in my strictly paternal and maternal lines.
The paternal was frustrating. I couldn't advance on it. Still stuck on my g.g.g.g grandfather John Brooker. He is recorded on the 1841 census as fathering seven children in the parish of Rotherfield Peppard in Oxfordshire between 1815 and 1836. He simply recorded N for not born in Oxfordshire. His age suggests a birth date of c.1791. The Internet couldn't help much on that one. I still need to return to the Oxfordshire Record Office, and maybe the Berkshire Record Office, if it does transpire that he came from there. I need parish registers. A bit of driving to do. I need to find his marriage somewhere before (or maybe around) 1815 to his wife Elizabeth. I do hope that it is in Rotherfield Peppard, but I fear that it is not.
The maternal however, was fruitful. That I am pleased with, as the strictly maternal line is the safest and most reliable. With any paternity, you never know for sure, who the father really was. People lied. But maternal - as reliable as paper genealogy can ever be. This is great, because it aligns with my mtDNA route. Surely the best lineage to research, although as marriage changes the surname most generations in European cultures, not the easiest to follow. A new surname nearly every generation. My previous research on the maternal line had only reached a c.1848 date to the ancestor allegedly in the photograph at the top of this post - Sarah Ann Thacker (nee Daines), who lived at Rackheath, Norfolk, but was actually born around twenty miles away at Besthorpe, Norfolk. Thinking bout it Daines might suggest Scandinavian origins might it not? Except of course that most English surnames originate long after the Danelaw.
Anyway, I started to find references to her on census, and a free online transcription of Besthorpe baptisms. She was born in 1849 at Besthorpe. Her parents had married the previous year nearby at the market town of Wymondham, Norfolk. Her father was Reuben Daynes, a labourer that had been born at Brandon, Norfolk. This appears to be Brandon Parva, a Norfolk parish between Wymondham and Dereham. I'll chase that one up later, but I'm for now concentrating on that maternal line. Sarah's mother was a Sarah Daynes (nee Quantrell), who was born at Wymondham around c.1827. I can't find her family on the census yet. She was living in a household of Longs at one point. Quantrell / Quantril appears to have been a well established English surname locally, with families of them at least at Wymondham, Norwich, and Bunwell going way back.
So, I've traced my maternal line back another generation, and to a new surname and town. What really pleased me is that none of my mother's family had any knowledge of family in the Besthorpe / Wymondham area. And yet my mother, a sister, and a niece all live in Wymondham today! An earlier copy of their mtDNA had lived in that Norfolk market town 175 years ago, but we wouldn't have known that before the new research. A census also revealed Sarah Thacker (nee Daynes), staying in Besthorpe with her parents and her young son George Thacker. Confirmation that she is my great great grandmother, and that Sarah Daynes (nee Quantrell) is my great great great grandmother.
I now need to visit the Norfolk Record Office in Norwich, to further confirm my research, and to see if I can go back another generation in my mtDNA story.
The above photograph is of Wymondham Abbey. Was my mtDNA here? Is this where Reuben Daynes married my great great great grandmother Sarah Quantrell in 1848? Taken on the Bronica SQ-A Zenzanon PS 80mm f/2.8 lens, loaded with Ilford HP5+ film, developed in Ilford ID11.