DNA - A Window to the Deep Past
Updated: May 25, 2018
Since it's inception, in the year 2000, Commercial DNA testing, for genealogical purposes, has become increasingly common and ever more affordable for the average Family History researcher.
For many who partake the primary concern is to identify hitherto unknown close kin, second, third, fourth cousins, to extend existing research through the comparison and mutually beneficial exchange of data. Others are more interested in identifying their recent genetic past, and the insight autosomal DNA testing can provide into their overall ethnicity.
Another aspect, often overlooked, but in many ways as fascinating, is the window they can cast into the deep past, through the identification of paternal and maternal haplogroups.
I had my DNA tested, in Autumn 2017, by LivingDNA, a British company based in Somerset, England. They identified my paternal haplogroup as R1b-U106. As shown in the graphic above this is common in South East England, the Netherlands and North West Germany. It is believed to have originated in a male individual who lived between 4,000-3,500 BC, in the Pontic Steppe, in modern day Ukraine, who was part of what archeaologists dub the 'Yamnaya' culture.
Reconstructed faces of a Man and Woman from the Yamnaya Culture, circa 4,000-3, 500 BC
From this ancient genesis, at the very end of the Neolithic Stone Age and the dawn of the Copper and Bronze Ages, at approximately the same time the first organised and literate city states emerged in Egypt and the Middle East, his DNA would survive and proliferate. It found its way to the British Isles, being transmitted through his direct male descendants, in the 'Corded Ware' culture, prevailant in Central Europe from 2,900-2,300 BC, the related Germanic speaking 'Ingveones' peoples based on the North Sea Coasts from 500 BC to 100 AD, and the daughter Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who crossed the water and settled in Eastern England from 450-650 AD.
As mentioned in my first blog post it is also the haplogroup carried by the current British Royal family, whose direct paternal ancestry can be traced back to Lower Saxony, in the 9th century AD. Were it possible to trace our unbroken paternal lines back to that steppe originator of R1b-U106, at some point the Queen and I share a common paternal ancestor, as do the great many Western Europeans, North Americans and Australians, who carry this same Haplogroup. This includes the first two human beings to have their whole genome sequenced, James D.Watson and biologist Craig Ventner, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA.
Living DNA also identified my maternal haplogroup, U3b, which originated in the Middle East or Persia, sometime around 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. Variants of U3b found their way to Europe primarily via the Romani Gypsy population, who first entered Europe in the 13th century. It is the most common maternal haplogroup amongst the Romani population in both Western and Northern Europe, and is rarely found in Europeans otherwise. Outside Europe it is primarily concentrated in the nomad population in Iran, and this is perhaps how it originally found it's way into the Romani genome, on their initial travels from North West India, into Europe in the 11th century AD. It's link to itinerancy is extremely ancient, it has been detected as early as 800-500 BC in the grave of a Thracian nomad warrior in modern Bulgaria. (I write more extensively about the importance of this haplogroup in the history of the emerging Romani people in the introduction to my book, Gypsies in Tudor England (1485-1603), available direct from this website, and from Amazon.co.uk and Ebay.co.uk).
Though these results have already allowed me to trace my direct ancestry back thousands of years to the earliest recorded human civilisations, they can be pushed further still to open the doors to an even more distant, undocumented, human past.
This flying swan pendant was discovered on the remains of a 3 to 4 year old boy buried approximately 24,000 years ago in Siberia. Belonging to a community of Ice Age reindeer hunters, scientists have extracted his DNA.
He carried Y Haplogroup R and mtDNA U, meaning this child is an ancient cousin on both my maternal and paternal line. The population he belonged to provided as much as 50% of the genes of the later proto-European Yamnaya culture of the Steppes. They are direct ancestors to many modern Europeans and Native Americans.
Christened by scientists as Mal’ta boy, they believe this child was most likely to have been brown eyed, and brown haired, with freckled skin. Found buried under a stone slab, he was also wearing an elaborate ivory diadem headband, a bead necklace, and had a carved mother goddess figurine placed beside him. Clearly he was a loved child grieved for by those who cared for him. This ancient cousin's world must have been unimaginably different to our own, but 24,000 years later, and it is still possible to understand and relate to this intensely human aspect to existence.
As an old fashioned pen and paper genealogist I was initially quite sceptical about the value of DNA testing, but can honestly say I have been blown away by its potential to reveal true insight into the depths of pre-history, the intricate interconnections of the human past, and the shared origins of the human race.