Tyrone Bowes claims to be able to use "modern science" to pinpoint the place of origin of one's patrilineal ancestors one thousand years ago based on the results of a 37-marker Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA. The distribution pattern of the surnames that appear in the person's match list is used to identify the "genetic homeland", which is defined as "the area (within a 5 mile radius) where one's ancestors lived for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is the area where one's ancestors left their mark in the history and place names of that area and in the DNA of its current inhabitants." I understand that the reports cost in the region of $300 a time. A free consultation is provided to determine whether or not it is possible to pinpoint a "genetic homeland". An 80% success rate is claimed for the Irish and Scottish reports, but no claim is made for the English case studies.
As far as I am able to establish the methodology used for the reports has not been legitimised by publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. An article by Tyrone Bowes entitled "Using Y Chromosome DNA Testing to Pinpoint a Genetic Homeland in Ireland" was published in April 2013 in the Surname DNA Journal. This journal was founded in January 2013 by Brad Larkin, a genetic genealogist who runs the Larkin DNA Project. Only five articles have been published in the journal to date, two of which have been written by Brad Larkin, and a third article has been contributed by a Larkin cousin. Although I am given to understand that the articles are reviewed prior to publication, the journal has no named editor and no editorial board so we cannot be certain that the people who are reviewing the articles have any expertise in the subject matter they are commenting on. Brad Larkin and Tyrone Bowes appear to have a business relationship. They jointly founded the Genetic Homeland website in March 2013, and this website is advertised prominently on the home page of the Surname DNA Journal.
The article in the Surname DNA Journal outlines Tyrone Bowes’ hypothesis that "Using commercial Y chromosome DNA testing, the Family Tree DNA database, the 1911 census of Ireland, Microsoft Excel, customized mapping software for surname distribution mapping, ordinance [sic] survey Ireland maps, and Google Earth it is possible to explore the relationships between a test subjects surname, and the surnames of his genetic matches to pinpoint the Genetic Homeland of an individual, and find evidence of their ancestors presence in the placenames and DNA of the areas current inhabitants." Eight case studies are presented to illustrate the methodology. However, the author makes no attempt to test the hypothesis scientifically. In the discussion it is stated that "the pinpointed 'Genetic Homeland' can be verified by Y chromosome DNA testing of people with the test subjects surname in the identified area". It is surprising, therefore, that such testing was not done for all the surnames in question to establish whether or not the hypothesis had any validity. It is claimed in the article that one person with the surname Bowes was tested to confirm the "Genetic Homeland of Clan Bowes" which is supposedly pinpointed to "an area centered upon modern day Abbeyleix in county Laois". However, this conclusion is disputed by Martha Bowes, the administrator of the Bowes DNA Project.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence in support of the methodology it seems that a number of people have ordered the genetic homeland case reports, and selected reports have been made available on the various Origenes' websites. It seems to me that the methodology is fundamentally flawed, and is based on a number of false assumptions. I've summarised below some of the main problems:
1) While matches with other surnames can often provide valuable genealogical clues, the claim to pinpoint a genetic homeland with such precision is not supported by the evidence provided. The technique does not account for the inherent uncertainty in the estimates of the time to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA). The calculation of a TMRCA is based on probability, and there are many variables such as sample sizes and mutation rates. Consequently TMRCA is not an exact science. It does not provide a precise point in time (eg, seven generations ago) but a probability distribution – a range of time in which the common ancestor might have lived. For example, a match on 34/37 markers could indicate a common ancestor who lived 200 years ago or two thousand years ago. It is therefore important that DNA evidence is considered in combination with genealogical evidence and not in isolation.
2) The Origenes' method takes no account of the biased nature of the Family Tree DNA database. Around 70% of FTDNA customers are thought to reside in the United States, and matches with other surnames may often reflect non-paternity events in the US rather than the origin of a surname in the British Isles. This point is nicely demonstrated in Howard Mathieson's critique of the Irish Origenes' case study of the Kiely surname. Furthermore, the FTDNA database has inevitable gaps, and many British and Irish surnames, particularly lower frequency surnames, are not yet represented.
3) The Origenes' reports do not appear to make any attempt to verify the SNP status of the people in the match lists whose surnames are used to pinpoint the "genetic homeland". SNP testing is important when investigating matches with other surnames in order to ensure that the matches are not false positives. Two men can have matching Y-STR results, but if they do not share the same SNPs they will belong on different branches of the Y-DNA tree and will not share a common ancestor within the last few thousand years. This problem occurs as a result of convergence. Although 37-marker results are most commonly affected the problem can still occur with more distant matches at 67 markers. Convergence is a particular problem in haplogroup R1b, the most common haplogroup in the British Isles which is found at a frequency of about 70% in England and over 80% in Ireland.
4) The assumption has been made that the geographical overlap of the matching surnames is an indicator of the "genetic homeland". However, it is conceivable that many groups of randomly selected surnames would overlap purely by chance but no attempt has been made to rule out this possibility.
5) The methodology is based on the hypothesis that "genetically recurring surname matches" provide a snapshot of one's "medieval ancestor’s neighbours". If the theory is correct, then the methodology needs to be applied consistently, but a close examination of the case reports reveals many inconsistencies. Sometimes recurring surnames are omitted for no apparent reason whereas in some of the case reports singleton matches are included, even though the technique requires that singletons should be omitted because they are claimed to be indicators of non-paternity events. For example, in the Patterson case study on the Scottish Origenes website it is apparent that Mr Patterson has recurring 67-marker matches with a wide variety of different surnames. Only the closest matches with a genetic distance of three or less are considered important enough for consideration for this report. Furthermore, only a few select surnames (Henderson, Stewart, Chisholm, McKay, McLean, Logan, and McDonald) are cherry-picked for inclusion while many of the other recurring surname matches (Norton, Stephenson, Turner, Johnson, Edwards, Tate, Rock) are excluded, presumably because the distribution will not support the proposition that Mr Patterson's "ancestral genetic homeland is centred upon Knockbain on the Black Isle", just north of Inverness. The opposite problem applies to the case report for Mr Henderson who inconveniently only had matches with other Hendersons at 67 markers. His matches at 37 markers were used instead in combination with more distant 37-marker matches found on Ysearch. For this report all the matching surnames were taken into account, including those surnames which only occurred once in the match list. Similarly in the Bennett case study on the English Origenes website the surname French is included in the report despite the fact that the surname only appears once.
6) The reports show no understanding of the evolution of place-names, and the evidence used in support of the genetic homeland stories is implausible at best. For example, in the Bennett case study we are told that "The Bennetts of Somerset cluster near the town of Burnham on Sea close to the Bristol Channel". We are further told that "the local placenames that reflect the ancestral link of the Bennetts and their genetic cousins with the surrounding area" include Bennett road, Lockswell, Locksway, Seymour road, Seymour Court, Coat (village), and Coate farm. Place-names can of course be very informative but most roads have been built and named in the last century or so, and road names are therefore highly unlikely to correlate with the presence of a surname in the locality one thousand years ago, especially in a seaside town which has probably had an influx of residents from many different parts of the UK.
DNA testing and surname distribution mapping are both very powerful tools for a surname study but they should always be used in combination with genealogical and historical records, and the results should be interpreted with caution. In order to determine the origin or origins of a surname it is necessary to map a surname at different points in time to establish continuity. Ultimately there is no substitute for a carefully conducted worldwide surname study which makes use of all available records from the beginnings of surnames to the present day.
For further discussions on the limitations of the Origenes' methodology see:
- My letter in Family Tree Magazine about "genetic homeland" stories (August 2014 issue)
- A Review of Irish Origenes' Bowes Case Study by Martha Bowes, administrator of the Bowes DNA Project and one-name study
- Origenes case study reviews by Howard Mathieson. See in particular Howard's article Can the Distribution of 19th Century Farmers Be Used To Identify a Surname's Genetic Homeland?
- Bowe research methodology queried - a letter from Fíona Tipple in the June 2014 issue of the Genealogical Society of Ireland's Gazette (page 2).
- A civil discourse on Irish Origenes' methods, a discussion on the Anthrogenica forum
- Irish Origenes and Irish Origenes – the next generation, discussions on the Guild of One-Name Studies' mailing list
A list of surname mapping resources can be found in the ISOGG Wiki.
I have discussed the available sources and the techniques for surname mapping at length in my Surnames Handbook (History Press, 2012).
For information on the methodology used in a one-name study see the website of the Guild of One-Name Studies.
See my Sense About Science blog post Sense About Genealogical DNA Testing for a summary of the legitimate inferences that can be made from DNA tests.