On Thursday, 26th January 2012, the Migration Museum Project held at a seminar on the subject of “Migration and Genetics”. This was the third in a series of gatherings, where a wide range of scientific subjects can be discussed, which have been held at the Dana Centre, part of the Science Museum, in Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, London.
Chaired by the news presenter, George Alagiah, the first two ten-minute sessions provided the background to the relationship now being enjoyed between the study of human history and the movement of populations and the recent developments in genetic testing. The archaeologist David Miles, author of The Tribes of Britain, gave us his thoughts on what new insights genetic studies could add to the conventional understanding of the settlement of the British Isles by immigrants from continental Europe. Dr Turi King, geneticist of Leicester University and co-author of the recently published book Surnames, DNA & Family History explained the theory behind the use of genetic testing. Concentrating particularly on the Y-chromosome, what light did such studies shed on where those populations may have come from en route to Britain? What do they tell us about the surnames which we inherit principally from our fathers?
Two further sessions centred on the experiences of Patrick Vernon and John Revis, whose test results had provided them with a surprising insight into particular parts of their own family trees. John had been tested by Leicester University during Turi’s study of surnames and was found to have inherited a Y-chromosome belonging to haplogroup A1a. This is its oldest form, never before found in Britain in someone who was not of immediate African origin. On recruiting other men named Revis, a Yorkshire surname, many were found to share this same very rare part of their genome and must be close relatives. This was proved to be the case through genealogical research conducted by myself and members of the Revis family.
Patrick’s experience was revealed through testing the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which was inherited through the female line of his ancestry. This added significantly to his own genealogy which had been traced back to a slave on a Jamaican plantation about 1800. His mtDNA pinpointed that his maternal line of ancestry came from a village in Senegal which he was pleased to return to in 2004. This gave him a profound sense of homecoming.
After a short break, Turi King revealed the results of tests conducted in advance on men in the audience. We had with us men from all parts of Europe representing haplogroups: R1b, the typical western European male; I, who are of “Viking” stock; E, who hail from the Mediterranean shores; and J, particularly the part of that haplogroup closely associated with the Jewish Cohen lineage. Those tested gave us their reaction to how this made them feel about their paternal forefathers. Several had checked in advance with their mother to ensure that they had not been adopted!
Opening the proceedings to participation and questions from the audience, a wide range of points of view were expressed. These ranged from why the focus was so much on male ancestry to what such tests may tell us about the concept of “race” and prejudice. How did John Revis feel when the media wanted to know what it was like to have black ancestors? Would that influence his diet or habits? Of course, we all have ancestors who ultimately came “out of Africa”. Some just left rather more recently than others. In any event, we are only looking at two very specific parts of the genetic material, the Y-chromosome and mtDNA, which pass down through history along the extreme right and left hand sides of our family trees. In other words, the Y-chromosome is inherited by sons from their father and mtDNA passes from a mother to her children. At present, we have no way of learning where all our other ancestral lines, who contributed equally to our family trees, lived in the past.
The clear message from this very rewarding seminar was that as genetic testing techniques develop, they may become much more powerful tools to give us all, genealogists, archaeologists and historians, a clearer understanding of how that melting pot, which is now the British, was created.