Monday 2 June 2014

A look at the genetic homeland case reports from English Origenes, Irish Origenes and Scottish Origenes

I've had a number of people writing to me in the last few months to express concerns about the genetic homeland case reports offered by Tyrone Bowes through his English Origenes, Irish Origenes and Scottish Origenes websites. The reports have also been the subject of much discussion in various groups and forums (see the links at the end of this article). I've now spent some time reviewing the methodology and the case reports, and I share the concerns of my correspondents so I thought would take this opportunity to highlight some of the problems.

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.

Further reading
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
Critique of “Grace an English Origenes Y-DNA Case Study” of 24th September 2017 by Dr. Tyrone Bowes A review by a dissatisfied customer

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.

© 2014 Debbie Kennett


Anonymous said...

I agree that the use of 37 marker matches doesn't tell you much, but if you have a lot of 67 marker matches, you can get some idea of your surname's place of origin (not necessarily within 5 miles, though). The Patterson study (not Paterson as you indicated, although it is the same name) was purchased by a group of Pattersons (of which I am a member) with decent 67 marker matches. If you revisit Bowes report, you will see he states the "genetic homeland" 1,000 years ago seems to be the north shores of Loch Fyne, with an outmigration in the 14th century with matches (primarily Logan) on the Black Isle. There is historical evidence of a Pat(t)erson group on the north shores of Loch Fyne and there was a depopulation of Argyll due to economic conditions at this time. You mention the close Norton matches were ignored, but Norton is a form of MacNaughton and this name appears on the Clan maps on the north shores of Loch Fyne. A MacNaughton was granted these lands in the mid 14th century. So I don't think Bowes is totally out to lunch.

Brian Swann said...

A very nice summary of all the issues, Debbie. The truth is out there (somewhere). There are no short cuts in this sort of research.

Debbie Kennett said...


Many thanks for your insightful comments. The Family Names in the UK team are looking at surname distribution over time so it will be interesting to see what they come up with. The problem is that none of the earlier records give such full national coverage as the Victorian censuses. The distribution of a surname in the nineteenth probably does often correlate with its origin, though I suspect there are many surnames which, from census data alone, look as though they might have originated in London, Bristol or Manchester! As you say, particular caution needs to be exercised with low-frequency surnames and of course the surname mapping evidence should always be used in combination with other sources.

Martha Bowes has a map of the distribution of the Bowes surname in Britain in 1881 using Steve Archer's Surname Atlas CD:

Debbie Kennett said...

My response to the comment about the Patterson case report is provided below split into two parts. Here is Part 1:

I agree that 67-marker matches can be informative but they need to be used in combination with the genealogical information provided by the users. Knowing that you match six people with the same surname with ancestry from North Carolina is not going to tell you very much because you've got no idea if the progenitor of the surname in America is descended from a legitimate or an illegitimate line.

The surname Patterson or Paterson simply means son of Patrick, and will have originated independently in multiple locations. It is a very common surname. In the 1881 census there were 20,417 Patersons in Britain who can be found all over Scotland and at low levels in virtually every English county. There were 10,449 Pattersons in 1881. The surname is again found throughout Scotland but is actually most prevalent in Northumberland and Durham. I've changed the spelling in my blog post to Patterson. However, I note that Tyrone Bowes has spelt Mr Patterson’s surname inconsistently throughout his report.

Norton and MacNaughton are completely different surnames. Norton is derived from one of many places called Norton. There were 9,963 Nortons in Britain in the 1881 census. The surname is found only at low frequencies in Scotland but is prevalent throughout England and particularly on the east coast, the Midlands and the West Country. MacNaugton has a completely different derivation. According to Black's Surnames of Scotland the name is derived from the Pictish word Neghtan. The distribution in 1881 is quite different from that of Norton. MacNaughton is found throughout Scotland. It is only found in a few places in England – in Lancashire and neighbouring counties, Oxfordshire and in the south-east.

It’s not just the Norton surname that is ignored but also many of the other matching surnames. The surnames Chisholm and McDonald are used for analysis purposes for the maps. Both of these surnames are at a genetic distance of three from Mr Patterson, but all the other surnames at the same distance (Stephenson, Turner, etc) are ignored. If you’re going make inferences about origins from match lists you need to look at all the genetic matches and not just the closest matches. In any case, genetic distance is not linear as Tyrone Bowes supposes, and you cannot allocate matches to a specific timeframe based on genetic distance as he tries to do in the Patterson report. That is why it's so important to know the SNP status.

The other surnames that match Mr Patterson at a genetic distance of one or two all occur at very high frequencies in the 1881 census and are widespread through Scotland and England:

Logan 7,108 (rank 599)
McKay 17,101 (rank 222)
Henderson 32,554 (rank 100)
Stewart 46,914 (rank 63)

If you map all these surnames there are numerous locations where they all overlap. You could cherry-pick any of the other names in the match list and use them in combination with these surnames to come up with a variety of different overlapping locations to suit whichever story you wanted to tell.

Note that Tyrone Bowes only uses farmers in his maps but by doing so he makes the false assumption from the outset that everyone has a land-owning farming ancestor. You need to look at the surname population as a whole and not just at a subset. The people who emigrated to the United States, whose descendants are the primary purchasers of the Origenes' reports, are probably much more likely to be descended from the tenant farmers who were evicted during the Highland Clearances.

Debbie Kennett said...

This is Part 2 of my response regarding the Patterson case report.

Even when you use Tyrone Bowes’s own data the maths doesn’t make any sense. In Figure 3 in the Patterson report he provides figures for farmers with the matching surnames in the 1841 census and tells us that Mr Patterson's Y-DNA results are associated with Ross and Cromarty in Northern Scotland. However, if you add up the totals in the columns there are 349 farmers in Ross and Cromarty but 682 in Invernessshire, so why is Ross and Cromarty chosen in preference to Invernessshire?

The migration story is only introduced because no evidence of place-names associated with the Patterson surname could be found in Knockbain on the Black Isle, which was supposedly the genetic homeland of Mr Patterson one thousand years ago. However people generally take their names from places rather than the other way round. Where surnames are used in place-names they appear as manorial affixes (eg, Milton Keynes). So we wouldn't expect to find places named after Pattersons denoting origins one thousand years ago. The report actually makes little sense because having told us that the genetic homeland is in Knockbain, he then doesn't believe the results of his own methodology and instead comes up with a story about a migration from LochFyne (which he mis-spells as Long Fyne and Lough Fyne). He arbitrarily chooses a different selection of surnames from the match list (Campbells, McGregors, Buchanans, McFarlane, McLaren, McAskills, McArthur), all seemingly specially selected for their Scottishness and their association with Argyllshire, presumably because of the documented link with Clan Paterson. Many other frequently occurring surnames are omitted with no reason given (eg, Wilson, Ferguson, Livingston, Young, Alexander, etc).

Surnames in any case did not "become common in the 10th century AD" as Tyrone Bowes states in his report. In Scotland surnames were introduced by the Normans but the adoption of surnames was a slow process. The landed families had surnames by the 1300s but in the Scots-speaking areas surnames weren't adopted until the sixteenth century or later. Surnames ending in –son are quite late developing. A search of the POMS database (, which covers the period from 1093-1314 returns no hits for Patterson or Paterson. The earliest reference to the surname Patterson in Black's Surnames of Scotland dates from 1446. Black cites numerous other early references to the surname from the 1500s from all over Scotland. (Incidentally you can download a copy of Black from FamilySearch Books:

Tyrone Bowes' lack of even a basic understanding of surnames is evident in the nonsensical conclusion to the report:

"Mr Paterson’s Y-DNA results demonstrate that when surnames became common in the 10th Century AD his Paterson-Adam lived in the area north of Lough Fyne. His Paterson-Adam lived surrounded by relatives who became Campbells, McGregors, Buchanans etc. At some point between 1200 and 1400AD his ancestors migrated north to the Black Isle where some of his ancestors picked new surnames like Logan and Chisholm."

The whole idea of a mass migration from Loch Fyne to Knockbain between 1200 and 1400 in any case seems highly unlikely. I would imagine the Highland terrain would have been virtually impassable back then. As far as I'm aware there was no link by water as the channel through to the Moray Firth was only dredged in 1917. If people want to move for economic reasons they tend to move to big cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh where work can be found rather than obscure parishes on the other side of the country.

Unknown said...

I think you make a great case up to your last paragraph. Then you too slip into generalities. Mass migration might have been difficult in the years mentioned, even unlikely but definitely able to be accomplished. Also people moved out of cities as well as to them. In short, people in earlier times gave in to nagging spouses, poor jobs, religious zeal, lack of a mate, curiosity and numerous other reasons for moving much as they do today - the technology was different but the underlying reasons were as diverse and there were people. Afterall, how did they get to the loch in the first place and from where?

Unknown said...

Hi Howard, Just a little note about the Bowes name in England in the context of this discussion. It is completely separate from the Bowes commonly found in the south of Ireland, who are variants of Irish Bowe, an anglicization of the Uí Bhui or Uí Bhaigh.

Debbie Kennett said...

Marie, I agree that people have always migrated and for various reasons. It is very difficult to re-construct the migratory paths of our ancestors, particularly when the documentary records are scarce. However, to understand migratory patterns you need to look at the road and river networks and the physical geography. People often followed coastal paths or migrated along the route of a river. The proposed migration makes little sense though of course it's not impossible. Nevertheless the point remains that it is a theory which is not supported by the evidence provided.

Mountain Mama said...

Thanks Debbie for another well reasoned analysis. Anyone understanding surnames wouldn't fall for this nonsense. For example, my maiden name means "small farmer". I am just sure we are all related. I also expect that during the middle ages, when a son moved to the city and started a new occupation, there was a good chance he changed his name to reflect his new status.

It's true, there IS a sucker born every minute.

Unknown said...

Howdy from John Adam Farris in Albuquerque, NM, USA,

I am a retired mechanical engineer who is an amateur genetic genealogist. At this point I have been DNA tested by six companies: one is new to the game & two are now out of business. I have done 111 Y markers plus full mt plus Family Finder with FTDNA as well as autosomal tests with Ancestry DNA & 23andMe. I have also been doing classical genealogy for my family for over 40 years.

I have read all of the comments about Dr. Bowes and I see the logic in many of them. However, I think Dr. Tyrone Bowes is doing a valuable service for the genealogy community & thus far I am in support of his methodology.

He has identified our FARRIS Adam area as being just North of Dumfries in the Border Rievers area of Southern Scotland with the surname of FARISH. There are old records (independent of Dr. Bowes) showing the FARISH surname for land holders on both sides of the border. He has posted my report on his Irish WEB Site.

His conclusions for me appear to be very logical, but as Dr. Bowes clearly points out, the only proof of his methods is to get 37 marker Y-DNA tests done by living males with a related surname in (or very close to) his target area for the surname in question. This I plan to do in the next few months & I will report back my results.

Respectfully submitted, John Adam FARRIS on 03 June 2015
Administrator of the FTDNA FARRIS Surname Group Project (80+ members)

[NOTE: We have identified over 80 spelling variations within the FARRIS Surname Group which appear in the old records of Colonial America as well as in Britain & Ireland. This surname also appears in Arabic speaking countries as well as in Sardinia & Western Italy. Haplogroups I1 & R1b are by far the most common for those tested thus far. JAF]

Debbie Kennett said...

You are clearly one of the pioneers in DNA testing and I can see you are doing sterling work on your Farris DNA Project. Thank for your sharing your thoughts on your Origenes report.

I had a look at the Farris case study on the Scottish Origenes website. I still stand by the comments I've made on this blog. I'm afraid I cannot see the logic in the Origenes approach. Indeed, in your Farris report the author does not evern appear to follow his own methodology! The logic is supposed to be that you can look at a person's matches and triangulate those matches to determine the genetic homeland of the surname one thousand years ago. According to your case study you have matches at 67 markers with other people with your surname or with other variants of the surname. You also have matches with the surnames Jones, Parker, Farrell/Ferrell and Vance. Therefore, using the Origenes logic these matching surnames should have formed the basis of the report. It is therefore somewhat surprising to see that none of these surnames have been mapped. Instead the author has produced a list of matching surnames found on Y-search. However, all of these matches with other surnames are very distant with a genetic distance of between three and six, and nearly all of these comparisons are done using fewer than 37 markers. We already know that interpreting matches with other surnames at 37 markers is very difficult because there are so many uncertainties in the dating. If you have a match with another surname at 37 markers the common ancestor could have lived 300 years or 3000 years ago and we have no way of telling without doing additional SNP testing. FTDNA provide a useful chart on interpreting matches at 37 markers which you might find of interest. There is also the problem of convergence - similar-looking haplotypes which turn out to be in different subclades. See the article on convergence in the ISOGG Wiki. It is therefore highly problematical to draw any conclusions about relatedeness on such very distant matches.

For reasons which are not clear the author has honed in on a Y-search "match" with the surname Glendinning for the basis of his report. However, this match is at a genetic distance of 6 on a comparison of just 33 markers and is therefore completely insignificant. He then cherry picks a few names from the "match" list (Eliot and Rogerson) that are in the same region while ignoring all the other surnames which are not in the same area. Rogerson supposedly only appears once in the match list yet the Origenes methodology dictates that only "recurring matches" should be used!

Debbie Kennett said...

I've only so far looked at the DNA evidence in the Farris case study which, as you can see, is deeply flawed. However, there are also problems with the mapping techniques used. First of all the idea that you can use the location of farmers in the 1841 and 1911 census to determine the origin of a surname 1000 years ago is mistaken. You might like to read this essay from the geographer Howard Mathieson which looks at this problem in more depth. Also, the emigrants to America were unlikely to have been farmers. If they were landholders they would have had no need to emigrate! When you look at the distribution of surnames in the various censuses (using all references and not just farmers) they will generally have regional distribution patterns and the clusters in the censuses will often correspond to the origin of the surname. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. The only way to determine the origin of a surname is through sound genealogical research looking at the surname's distribution at different points in time using a variety of different records. This is the methodology that we use in the Guild of One-Name Studies.

Howard Mathieson has spent some time reviewing individual Origenes case reports from the perspective of the spatial analysis. You might like to read some of Howard's reviews which are linked here. It's interesting to note that the McMillan case report similarly makes a claim for a genetic homeland in Dumfriesshire, and the surname Glendinning is once again wheeled out in support of this claim while contradictory evidence is ignored.

There is much more that could be said but I hope I have made my points.

Unknown said...

I thought I would chime in with my experience with Irish Origenes--noting ahead of time of my acute awareness of the limited benefits of a sample size of one!

Late in 2014 I began a conversation with Dr. Bowes via email about my Cullen line. A distant Cullen cousin took a Y-67 test, with a goal of pinpointing the location of our Cullen immigrants, said to have come from County Wexford, Ireland. Two different possible places of origin within County Wexford were under consideration. I wondered whether Dr. Bowes might be able to provide some additional insight, and based on his presentation/promotional materials, it seemed to be the right tool for the challenge.

In my initial note I mentioned a couple of items, including my question about whether Cullen was the original surname due to the large number of other surnames (Beatty, Byrne, etc.) that populated my closest matches. I did not go into many details, but Dr. Bowes was quick to request that I not share any of that so as to avoid any bias in his work/interpretation.

I looked at the reviews--many critical, including the particular blog post to which I am adding this comment. These were very helpful, as I am inclined to be skeptical about "simple" answers after 25+ years of paper-trail genealogy. I was able to ask Dr. Bowes some follow-up questions based on these critiques before going forward with the actual order. In the end, I decided to do so.

The results were quite clear: Dr. Bowes had identified one of the two areas that our paper-trail research had led us to believe was the home of "our" Cullens. Again, I had not mentioned any of the towns or regions under consideration, so it was a bit of a surprise to see a very familiar area of Google Earth identified as being "our own."

As mentioned in Mr. Farris's comments about his experience, a follow-up Y-DNA test with a Cullen male from the area would be necessary. I followed Dr. Bowes's suggestion to put an advertisement in a local newspaper--he kindly provided me with some sample letters and the names of publications--with the hope that we might find someone. Six weeks later, I received an email from a Cullen male with a good paper trail and family links to the same property going back to the time when my paper trail ran out--the early 1800s. He said he and his uncle would be willing to participate; I sent a test kit out to his uncle the following day.


Unknown said...

The results posted just last week: a genetic distance of 5 at 67 markers and and 3 at 37 markers--far from an identical match, but easily the closest Cullen-surnamed male among my cousin's matches, and further evidence pointing to a particular region of County Wexford as an ancestral home for our line.

Given all of this, it would seem that this is a textbook example of Dr. Bowes's methods "working" as advertised--though, again, my training and inclination remind me that there is much to be desired in the methodology. To claim something is a valid tool based on the "when it works, it works" idea is the opposite of scientific reasoning . . . but in this case at least, it was a tool that was helpful for us.

Plenty could have gone in different directions here: Dr. Bowes could have very easily determined that this was not a Cullen line . . . or another non-related Cullen might have responded to my newspaper bulletin, or any number of other possibilities. The bottom line is that the combination of years of paper-trail research, Dr. Bowes's techniques, and some good old-fashioned luck resulted in a confirmed close match and a better idea of where to direct our research (and visits to Ireland) going forward.

Would I recommend this for everyone? Well, if there was a guarantee that all would go as well as it has in our case, then yes. I also understand, though, that there is much about the process above that involved things outside of the bounds of science (including plain old luck) that makes me question how likely the process above is to apply to most/all others who might be interested.

Thoughts/feedback appreciated. I would be happy to share the original report with folks who might want to dig further.

Debbie Kennett said...


Thanks for getting in touch. There are a number of different issues here.

First of all the Origenes methodology is not making any claims to identify the origin of a surname in a genealogical timeframe. The very specific claim made is that it is possible to pinpoint someone's ancestral origins one thousand years ago. Does the Cullen you match have a perfect paper trail going back to the year 1000? If not I don't see how the claim can be supported. Finding a match with someone with the same surname only confirms that you share a common ancestor with that person. There are always uncertainties over the TMRCA but you might be able to refine that by testing other Cullens with good pedigrees so that it's possible to triangulate back to a known ancestor.

I think we all agree that Y-DNA matches can be useful pointers to your geographical origin. I have, for example, got a couple of people in my Devon DNA Project with known NPEs who match someone with a different surname from the same parish. Much depends on the rarity or otherwise of the haplotype. However, the DNA evidence on its own is not proof. You still need to go back to the genealogical records. That may change with the advent of next generation sequencing tests (Big Y, FGC) where we can now compile a very accurate Y-tree right down to the last 150 years or so, providing of course that enough people have tested at this level.

As you say a sample size of n=1 is not statistically valid, and your single success could just be the result of the play of chance. I've heard anecdotally of other people who've followed the advice and paid for a test but have not got a match. Much also depends on the rarity of the surname and the number of different Cullen Y-lines in Ireland. If there are only a small number of Cullens in Ireland then it's highly like that most of them will match each other. If it's a common surname then the chances of match would be much reduced. Is the Cullen surname found elsewhere in Ireland. Have other Cullens been tested?

The most useful part of the analysis in your case was the help with identifying the local newspapers and the preparation of a sample letter.

I would be interested to see your case report. Howard Mathieson would probably also be interested to see it. He is a trained geographer and has looked at the methodology in detail. See his articles linked from here:

Unknown said...

I think the point that Debbie Kennet makes re matches within a Genealogical time frame are instructive.

I have looked at many of the Origene's studies. In a very few instances, followed up with my own analysis, they seem supportable in terms of identifying a historic homeland.

However for every "reliable" result there are many more that are completely unsupportable. In fact some of the errors evident in the studies are inexcusable and point to historical and genealogical research skills that fall well short of what would be necessary to compliment a valid DNA analysis.

Debbie Kennett has provided links to summary reviews of 4 representative cases. There are also links to the more detailed reviews. In each of these cases fundamental errors unrelated to the DNA analysis render the results completely faulty.

Unknown said...

Hi Craig, Thank you for bringing your experience up for comment.

My first thought was the same as one of Debbie's. It's one thing to look to a same-surname match's point of origin for records of one's own family. If lucky, one might even connect the family trees of the matching men. That, after all, is one of the main purposes of surname DNA studies. But one can't *assume* that their family comes from the same place as the match, or that the match came from where the surname arose.

Let's use the Bowes DNA study, which I administer, as an example ( We have a number of well-formed Irish Bowe(s) subgroups (green), but the members of those matching subgroups often trace their trees back to different counties. Tyrone claims that his Irish Bowe(s) genetic homeland -- which he purports to be within five miles of Abbeyleix, Laois -- was proven when another Bowe(s) from Laois matched him. This is cherry picking the data. It ignores his three matches who trace back to Kilkenny, and even one from England in the early 1700s. Had his first match been the one from England, what then?

The DNA project results are useful but also a bit of a moving target. We don't know what we don't know. Could you have a closer match from another location who just hasn't tested yet? If so, maybe your current match was also from that other location prior? We all do the best we can with the information we have, and I would sure explore the area your new match came from for possible clues to your family's history. I just wouldn't assume you have all the data yet needed to document that you came from the same place, and certainly not enough to suggest your surname family began there about 1000 years ago if Origenes makes this claim in your report. While you recognize that your trajectory through Origenes may have gone quite differently up to this point, the other end of that is being aware that what appears to be luck today may look more like a red herring tomorrow. The match won't change, but the interpretation could. It's just good context to keep in mind while you consider the clues.

As Howard says, "... some of the errors evident in the studies are inexcusable and point to historical and genealogical research skills that fall well short of what would be necessary to compliment a valid DNA analysis." A highly concerning example from Origenes' own Bowes interpretation is that he formally cites a respected Irish placename authority (Flanagan) as support for two assertions which do not appear anywhere in the book at all. I was hard pressed looking at the very well organized reference book to conceive of any way it could be seen as stating what he claimed it said. Nothing even came close, and I cannot imagine how it could be misinterpreted to support Origenes point of view. This is specifically addressed in my comment here

Unknown said...

Now that it is 2020 has your opinion changed about Dr Tyrone Bowes and his research. I to received a report on my Dennison line. I too have questions for the doctor

Debbie Kennett said...

Nothing I've seen in the last few years has made me change my opinion about these reports. If people are interested in their deep ancestry on their surname line they would be better off buying a BigY test and joining a haplogroup project at FamilyTreeDNA.

Unknown said...

I was deeply disappointed because of the lack of information. It was generic at best. He use my 111 DNA when I had available Big Y with totally different matches and it did not use the newest terminal snp. It's not worth what he's charging

Debbie Kennett said...

I'm very sorry to hear that. Even before the availability of the BigY, the reports ignored the results of any SNP testing. Y-STRs on their own can often give a very misleading idea of relatedness.

Unknown said...

My name is Steve Dennison I've been the unknown commenter even though I tried to figure out how to put my name on. Anyways is there any updated critiques on doctor Bowes reports. And is there any legitimate DNA reports that I could get into besides what I got with dr. Bowes. I did ask him some questions the other night and they were vague and then he brought up the out of Samuel test wanting to go all over and do another report I'm not doing it