Friday 1 March 2013

Who Do You Think You Are? Live Day 3: Alistair Moffat on how DNA is rewriting British history

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.

Further information
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.

See also
- 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


Andrew Millard said...

A few comments on the archaeological part of this...

The population estimate Moffat uses of 2M is on the low end of the range of estimates I have seen; it could be twice that. The estimate of 40,000 soldiers accords with common estimates, but his account of the origins of those soldiers is much narrower than reality. Regular soldiers in the legions were all citizens, but citizenship was not confined to people from Italy; one of the most famous claims to Roman citizenship is that of the apostle Paul, who was a Jew from Asia Minor. As well as the regular army there were auxiliaries recruited from non-citizens and granted citizenship when they retired after 25 years service. We have surviving bronze inscriptions of discharge documents from Roman Britain from AD 83 and 98 as well as the second century. So there were certainly auxiliaries in Britain in the first century, and probably from soon after the conquest.

The Claudian invasion of AD 43 was by four legions, including the Legio IX Hispana, which, as its name suggests, was recruited in what we now call Spain. By the middle of the 2nd century we have inscription evidence on Hadrian's Wall alone for auxiliaries from all over the empire, including Dalmatia, Syria, Germany, and Aquitaine. There were Sarmatians at Ribchester, but Dacians (from modern Romania) were elsewhere, including possibly at Chester.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that the same Mark Thomas who co-authored an article about the genetic legacy of the Vikings? Perhaps he's an astrologer too!

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks Andrew for the very helpful explanation. The picture is obviously very complicated.

Debbie Kennett said...

Dear Anonymous

I believe you are thinking of the paper "Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling: The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England". This article was written by a number of distinguished academics including Professor Thomas and was published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal. You can read the paper online here:

This was a pilot study to see if surnames could be used to detect Viking ancestry. However, it is a very different matter to extrapolate from that paper and tell someone that they are a Viking simply because they belong to say haplogroup R1a. The same surname-based sampling technique would obviously not work for the Romans because we don't have any Roman surnames.

Anonymous said...

The biggest gaping hole in James Wilsons attempt to assign or infer Roman origin based on the U-152 SNP found in the Isles, is that he is deliberately leaving out TWO significant ancient Isles settlement populations and either pretending that they did not exist.

Wilson jumps from the aboriginal L21 Britons directly to the Romans, but completely ignores the genetic impact of both the Alpine LaTene Celt settlement in Britain, as well as ignores completely the Belgic Kingdoms of pre-roman Britain. NEITHER of these groups would be likely to group genetically with the aboriginal L21 Britons, and BOTH would be expected in particular to include a significant or majority population of R1b U-152.

There is often a sort of a low-level unspoken heritage war waged by many within the teeming masses of R1b L21 AMH Isles individuals of which Wilson is one of these L21 persons himself, against the much less numerous R1b U-152 people. U-152 is seen as a challenger based on a lot of recent excavation results around Stonehenge, and for someone fiercely interested and personally invested in Ethno-Genetics matters like Wilson, U-152 needs to be dismissed so that it does not knock over Wilsons preferred ethno-historical apple cart.. let me explain-

Wilson briefly touches on what is likely the actual truth behind the English R1b U-152 results when he mentions the Amesbury Archer burial, that long predates Roman arrival to the British Isles. We have excavated proof that the Pre-Roman British Isles populations likely did not consist exclusively of the R1b L21 aboriginal brythonic peoples Like Wilsons own paternal R1b-L21 AMH results, particularly in Southern Britain.
There were recorded, but often deliberately minimized, ancient Belgic settlements in Southern Britain, and Belgic kingdoms in historically significant area of Southern England. There are continental style Hillforts all over the south of England founded and dated to have been built contemporaneous with these Alpine migrant ancient burials in the region. We also know now from recent archaeology, that millenia BEFORE the Romans arrive in Britain, Alpine Celts - Bell Beaker folk from the area of the euro continent that is today Switzerland were arriving and had settled in Britain.

Not only are Alpine peoples proven present in Southern Britain over 4,000 years ago, but they are - cooincidentally - clustered around what we know today as STONEHENGE. This also happens to be the region of England that has the largest
modern pct. of R1b U-152 occurrence in modern DNA test results. The Stonehenge Alpine-origin Celts appear to have originated from
the continental LaTene Celtic empire centered around what is modern Switzerland, based off of Isotope results from the Stonehenge - Amesbury archer burial, continental beaker vessels, and at least nine surviving Beaker folk ancient burials within very close proximity to what we know as Stonehenge.

R1b U-152 results do NOT have a consistent or stable pct. distribution across the entirety of Wales and England as Wilson falsely implies, but are found at the highest pct. in the far south of England where we are now finding burials of ancient
continental Alpine migrants. Such Alpine Migrants, based on Modern Swiss and Lombardy Y-dna results, would be especially expected to have a high occurance of...yep, you guessed it.. R1b U-152.

James Wilsons lecture is more notable for what he deliberately LEFT OUT, than it is for what he came to sell.
The area of dominant presence for U-152 in modern "Italy" is not in ancient 'Rome' or central and southern Italy- the U-152 "Italian" area of dominance is overwhelmingly the Alpine foothils and valleys of far northern "Italy". 'U-152' is found at its largest "Italian" percentages in places that are within reach of the Swiss Border, which was also, not so coincidentally, the Alpine LaTene Celtic homeland.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thank you for your interesting comments on U152. The lecture was actually given by Alistair Moffat not Jim Wilson. I don't know how much of the analysis actually came from Jim Wilson. I think we really need a lot more genetic data from Europe but also a lot more ancient DNA results before we are in a position to draw meaningful inferences. All these past population groupings would not in any case have consisted of a single subclade. Are the new SNPs below U152 providing any insight?

Anonymous said...

Some of these DNA tests claims are becoming annoying, with so much speculation.

How can Moffat claim its Roman, when these genetic groups could of been brought in by anyone really.

Some articles I come across tell a few different stories too. Just found an article claiming that Alistair Moffat has found Yorkshire men to have high amounts of indigenous ancestry, then found another claiming Moffat found Yorkshire men are the most diverse.

Debbie Kennett said...

You can really make up an story you like to fit with the genetic data but it is a very different matter trying to test an hypothesis in a proper scientific manner. I'm just astonished at the way the media lap up all these stories without even making basic checks to see if the "research" has been published in a scientific journal.

Anonymous said...

Moffat appears to have been pretty well debunked as pertains to Brit Isles U-152 by Boattini et al. (2013).

The vast majority of British Isles R1b/U-152 is also L2+.

Boattini found that Italian peninsula U-152 is only second to Spain in the lack of 'L2', but from south of Pistoia, Tuscany U-152 numbers fall significantly as a whole and 'L2' numbers in particular are generally trivial or absent.

In addition Ukrainian and Polish U-152 results are near unanimous for 'L2' and these populations were not impacted by Romans or Italic settlers..

all in all, this means Moffatt and his curious eagerness to sell this particular theory is pretty well DEBUNKED.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks for sharing your findings on U152. Here's the link to the Boattini et al 2013 paper in case anyone needs it:

Alistair Moffat has never published his "research" anyway. This talk and his book are really just a marketing exercise rather than any attempt to make a serious contribution to our knowledge.

Matt Pinkston said...

Nicely stated. DNA tests can indeed give clues not available elsewhere, but when generalizations are applied, claims need to be very carefully analyzed before making statements.

Lindy said...

I have Switzerland on my DNA map and I have MtDNA J2a1a1 which was in the Alps. From the same small regional rural area there is someone with my paternal grandfathers surname and the predicted Haplogroup is U152. My cousin is testing for me to see if my grandad is U152 or something else. Nevertheless you have both a male and female line linked to rural Lancashire but historically in the Alps. My closest maternal subclade matches are exclusively in Western England and Ireland. Romans were not in Ireland, nor Anglo Saxons. Belgae/Setanti maybe but indeed I have two close matches near Stonehenge. I have an open mind but I concur, if you are English there is a push to put you on the last boat possible and that doesn't make sense.

Debbie Kennett said...

Lindy, Thanks for your comments. The difficulty with mtDNA is that even if you have an exact match at the full sequence level the common ancestor could have lived a thousand years ago or more. It is therefore common to find that you have lots of matches at the full sequence level with people with ancestry from many different countries.

U152 is a fairly high-level haplogroup assignment and again will date back thousands of years. It is now possible to order a more advanced test such at the Big Y-700 which will provide you with a list of SNPs going right down to the present day including private variants that are only found in the individual tester. There is a U152 Project at FTDNA that has more information about U152.