Surnames and the Y chromosome

Research Fellow: Dr Turi King - Project Manager of the Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain and lead researcher on the Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in the North of England project

In Britain, we have heritable surnames. As they are passed down through the paternal line, surnames become a marker of a family group and even dynasties and act as a cultural marker of common ancestry. Many surnames are highly geographically localized giving additional information as to where the surname, and  potentially a current bearer’s paternal ancestor, originated. One piece of our DNA, the Y chromosome, is also passed down through the paternal line thus mirroring the transmission of surnames and acting as a biological marker of common ancestry. Previous work has shown that these two different types of marker are linked and that this link is stronger the rarer the surname. This connection allows us to use surnames as a time machine: sampling men bearing surnames tied to a particular area in the past provides us with a lens through which to view the genetic make-up of the pre-industrial British population.

This project used this cultural-genetic toolkit to understand past male migration with a main focus on the genetic legacy of the Vikings in the north of England but also to look at geographical structure in other parts of Britain. Genetic data was combined with archaeological, surname and place-name data and these multiple strands were brought together utilizing, among other methods, GIS approaches to give a more rounded picture of the extent of the Viking migration to this area of Britain. Here this project overlapped with project five and it’s study of Viking place-names. This project also overlapped with an exploration of the impact of the results of genetic testing on participants' feelings of identity and perceived ancestry as part of project four.

Sampling of cultural groups, such as the Romany peoples thought to have arrived in Britain during the 16th and 17th century, allowed us to explore whether the genetic signal of their ancestry remained among these groups today or whether integration with the local population over the generations resulted in a cultural transmission of identity which is not mirrored by genetics.

Other strands of this project involved examining the vast quantities of genetic/surname data which are becoming newly available online through the activities of genetic genealogists. These data, complemented by closely targeted sampling, were exploited to systematically examine changes in patterns of Y chromosome diversity in Britain over the last few hundred years, and hence the importance of recent population movement in obscuring older, deeper patterns.

Research was also carried out into the utility of the link between surnames and the Y chromosome in the fields of population genetics, forensics and epidemiology

The Viking DNA Project

This study was carried by out by Dr Turi King.

In this study we aimed to look at the proportion of Viking ancestry in different parts of the north of England.

As a group of islands on the edge of a continent, we know that the British Isles have been on the receiving end of numerous migrations. The peopling has occurred in waves, from early Paleolithic settlers, through to the spread of farmers during the Neolithic, the arrival of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings. The modern population also includes likely trace contributions from other groups, too. The contributions of these various groups to the modern population of the British Isles is debated, and the purpose of this research project was to use genetic methods to contribute to our understanding of these past events. To carry out this research we used surnames, and information about the birthplaces of recent ancestors.

Most people get their surnames from their father, and men also inherit specific genetic material (DNA) from their father too. This is the Y chromosome, which is responsible for making males. We know that a Y chromosome type can relate to a particular surname and we also know that most surnames are linked to particular regions. Thus by sampling men with specific surnames and/or with ancestry in particular locations, we were able to draw up a map of the different Y chromosome types found in different regions in the past. We looked, for example, at regions where we suspected that there was a strong influence of Vikings and compared the Y chromosomes found here with ones found in Norway.

The only criteria for participating was that you are a man whose father’s father was born in the county of Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Durham or Northumberland and that you have one of the surnames that are thought to be ‘northern’ surnames.

Academic Collaborators

Berit M Dupuy, Oslo University College, Norway

We are very grateful to the following people for assistance in collecting samples in Norway: Harold Lovvik, Sigurd Aase, Stephen Harding and Anne Marit Berge.

This project follows a smaller pilot project carried out in the lab of Professor Mark Jobling.

Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling: The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England.

Georgina R. Bowden, Patricia Balaresque, Turi E. King, Ziff Hansen,Andrew C. Lee, Giles Pergl-Wilson,Emma Hurley,Stephen J. Roberts, Patrick Waite,Judith Jesch, Abigail L. Jones, Mark G. Thomas, Stephen E. Harding and Mark A. Jobling. Mol. Biol. Evol. 25(2):301–309. 2008