On Sunday I arrived early at Olympia and in the quiet time before the doors opened to the public I managed to call in at the stand of the History Press, who are the publishers of my two books. They told me that they had already sold all their copies of DNA and Social Networking and that they only had four copies left of my Surnames Handbook. Fortunately the Guild of One-Name Studies still had a few copies left on their stall so I hope no one was disappointed. I picked up from the History Press stand a copy of the book by John Ashdown Hill entitled The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig. In this book the author describes the detailed research he carried out on the family tree of Richard III in the search for a female line descendant of one of Richard's siblings who would be a candidate for mitochondrial DNA testing.
I was very pleased to see Family Historian exhibiting at WDYTYA for the first time this year. I use this excellent software for my own family history research and it has now developed a very loyal and dedicated user base. I had a brief chat with Jackie Depelle who was helping on the Family Historian stand. Jackie is a fellow member of the Guild of One-Name Studies. She teaches family history classes in Yorkshire and also teaches courses on the use of the software. Jackie told me that there had been a lot of interest in Family Historian, and that many others users had also come to the stand to say hello.
Sunday is traditionally the quietest day at WDYTYA, but my talk in the morning was again packed out with people having to stand at the back. All the volunteers on the Family Tree DNA and ISOGG stands were kept busy throughout the day explaining to people how DNA testing works and selling many more kits.
At lunchtime I attended the talk by Alistair Moffat on "How DNA is rewriting British history". The research had been heralded in a story in the Daily Telegraph on the previous Friday entitled One million Brits 'descended from Romans' with a promise that the figures behind the study would be announced by Alistair Moffat at Who Do You Think You Are? Unfortunately the talk was a big disappointment. Alistair Moffat did not use any slides and read his lecture from a script. He started with a brief explanation of the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA markers which are used in deep ancestry studies. He did not say so but these markers are technically known as SNPs (pronounced "snips") which is short for single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Moffat explained that he would provide one detailed example in his lecture to explain how DNA is helping to rewrite British history and made the surprise announcement that his company BritainsDNA (which also trades as ScotlandsDNA, IrelandsDNA, and YorkshiresDNA) has found the lost Roman legions. The historians and scientists at BritainsDNA have supposedly discovered through DNA testing that around one million men in Britain can claim to be the direct descendants in the male line of the Roman legions. Unfortunately, he failed to provide any scientific evidence to back up these extraordinary claims.
The bulk of the talk consisted of a lesson on Roman history and the Roman occupation of Britain. Moffat estimates that there were perhaps two million people living in England and Wales when the Romans invaded. He speculated that around 40,000 Roman soldiers and cavalrymen were stationed in Britain. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Y-chromosome of some of these Roman soldiers and cavalrymen has survived in the Y-chromosome DNA of living male-line descendants but proving this link is a somewhat different matter. Moffat stated that before the middle of the second century AD recruitment to the Roman army was restricted to men who were Roman citizens and who were therefore Italians or of Italian descent. He suggested that a comparison between Italian Y-chromosome DNA and British Y-chromosome DNA might show up something of the genetic legacy of the Roman legions. As Ireland was never conquered by the Romans and the south of Scotland was only occupied for a short time Roman DNA ought be present in England and Wales, absent in Ireland and should occur only at low frequencies in Scotland. As he rightly pointed out, there are many caveats to this argument. DNA often arrived in Italy from elsewhere, and of course the Roman Army did not consist entirely of Italians. He cited the example of the Sarmatian cavalry who were from what is now Romania and who were stationed at Ribchester Fort in Lancashire. (I may have misheard at this point because the Wikipedia article on the Sarmatians suggest that they are from Iran and not Romania.)
No details were given on how many DNA samples were used in the study in Britain and Italy. BritainsDNA is a commercial DNA testing company and is reliant on customers paying money to order a DNA test. It is therefore very important to ensure that the samples used are from a random selection of the population. No details were given as to how the samples were randomised to take into account biases in the customer base. The conclusion that around one million British men are descended from the lost Roman legions was based purely on the finding of five of the rarer haplogroups in the samples studied. The five haplogroups that supposedly represent the Roman legions are given below. I have used the marker names given by Moffat but have provided in square brackets the haplogroup names based on the current ISOGG Y-SNP tree and the alternative SNP names where a more familiar name is normally used as BritainsDNA has its own proprietary naming system for some SNPs.
The first haplogroup associated by Moffat with Roman ancestry is R1b-S28 [R1b-U152 or haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1b2]. According to Moffat this marker is known as the Alpine marker. It occurs at a frequency of 13% in Italy, 6.5% in England and Wales, 4.3% in Scotland and 1.8% in Ireland. At this point Moffat's evidence was somewhat contradictory as he told us that this marker almost certainly arrived in Britain around 3000 BC and that it might have been the marker of the Amesbury Archer. However, he then suggested that this marker is also a candidate for Roman ancestry because of its high frequency in Italy, its presence in England and Wales and its lower frequency or complete absence in areas that were not occupied by the Romans or only briefly occupied. He did not explain how it was possible to differentiate between indigeneous U152 and U152 supposedly brought to England by the Romans. Nevertheless, extrapolating from figures from the 2011 census, he went on to estimate that 1.6 million British men are U152/S28. I missed the next point but there was an additional calculation which substantially reduced the original estimate to produce the claim that half a million men in England and Wales are descended from Roman soldiers simply because they are U152/S28.
Moffat went on to claim that four additional Y-chromosome DNA markers arrived with the Romans. These are:
1) E-V13 [haplogroup E1b1b1a1b - known by BritainsDNA as the "Balkan group"]
2) G-S314 [G-M201 is haplogroup G and is known by BritainsDNA as "Ancient Caucasian"]
3) J-M172 [haplogroup J2 known by BritainsDNA as the "Herdsman Farmers"]. Moffat claimed that a subgroup of J-M172, known as J-M67 [haplogroup J2a1b] is particularly Italian.
4) R1b-M269* [this group is known by BritainsDNA as the "Anatolian group". The asterisk normally denotes that someone has tested negative for all downstream M269 markers. There are now numerous R1b subclades but the full list of markers tested by BritainsDNA is not known.]
These four haplogroups are supposed to add another 2.3 million Englishmen and Welshmen who can trace their Y-chromosome lines to the Romans. For some reason which I did not understand Moffat than took other factors into account and reduced the numbers to produce a total of one million English and Welsh men in his study who supposedly have Roman ancestry, corresponding with the headline figure cited in the Daily Telegraph article. Unfortunately no explanation was given as to why these four haplogroups in particular should be associated with Roman ancestry. All the base haplogroups are very widespread and it's only when you drill right down to the more recent subclades that you start to see more refined geographical distributions. Haplogroup G, for example, is found throughout Europe but is also found in parts of Asia and Africa. The haplogroup G project at Family Tree DNA has a huge collection of around 3000 haplogroup G samples from all over the world which have been placed in sub-groups based on advanced SNP testing. Some of these subgroups have only been found in specific countries or regions such as Spain, Turkey or the Middle East, but the numbers tested within each subgroup are still relatively small and it is far too early to draw any conclusions. Numerous scientific papers have been written on haplogroup G and its subclades, often coming to very different conclusions. Many of these scientific papers are linked in the haplogroup G article on Wikipedia. Without doing additional SNP testing to define the subclades and without the aid of Y-STR markers to predict the subclade it would seem impossible to conclude that the presence of haplogroup G on its own is a sign of Roman ancestry. Even then, other evidence would need to be taken into account such as the archaeological evidence and ancient DNA analysis. Furthermore, present-day Italians belong to a wide variety of haplogroups, most of which are also found in the British Isles. A quick glance at the results of the large Italy DNA Project at Family Tree DNA gives a rough idea of the present-day haplogroup distribution in Italy. No reason was given as to why a few haplogroups were selected seemingly at random from the wide range of haplogroups found in Italy today to represent Roman ancestry.
After the announcement of the five markers that are supposedly associated with the lost Roman legions there then followed a brief discussion about a new marker by the name of R1b-S190 [haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1b3a7d1] which was discovered by Dr Jim Wilson in 2012. This marker is apparently found in about 1% of Scottish men and is particularly prevalent in just a few parts of Scotland. It is also found at low frequencies in Ireland. According to Moffat this marker is associated with descent from the Maeatae, though this claim was based purely on the evidence of the present-day distribution in Scotland in an undisclosed number of samples.
DNA testing is a very effective tool for family history when used in conjunction with the traditional documentary research. However, at the deep ancestry level there are inherent problems in associating particular types of DNA with Roman legions, the Vikings, the Celts, the Normans, the Maeatae or any other ethnic group. The problems are well described in an excellent article "To claim someone has 'Viking ancestors' is no better than astrology" written by Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at University College London, for The Guardian. As Professor Thomas notes, it is important that scientific research is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The system is not perfect but it does at least ensure that basic standards are followed and it lends a degree of credibility to the research. The Sense About Science website has a very useful new booklet entitled Peer Review Matters to the Public, which explains why the peer review process is so important, and I recommend that anyone wishing to know more about the subject should read this booklet.
Unfortunately in the case of this Roman research it appears that it is not to be published in a scientific journal but will instead bypass the usual peer review process and will be published in a new book written by Alistair Moffat and his business partner Dr James Wilson entitled The British: A Genetic Journey which is due out in September. It therefore looks as though we will have to wait for publication of the book to find out more about the sampling process and how these conclusions have been reached.
The next lecture I attended on Sunday was a fascinating talk by Dr Michael Hammer on "DNA and our ancestral origins" which included news on an amazing citizen science discovery. Michael Hammer is the Associate Professor and Research Scientist at the Hammer Lab at the University of Arizona and Family Tree DNA's Chief Scientist. I shall write about his lecture in my next blog post.
For details on the Y-chromosome DNA tests offered by the various DNA testing companies see the Y-DNA testing comparison chart in the ISOGG Wiki. Note that for genealogical matching purposes it is necessary to order from a company which tests Y-STR markers. Y-SNP markers can only be used for deep ancestry purposes.
- Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2013 Days 1 and 2
- Who Do You Think You Are? Live Day 3 Part 2: The new ancient root of the Y-tree
© 2013 Debbie Kennett