Back to your roots


If you have ever tried to trace your family tree and come to a dead end, the chances are that your missing ancestors were still living in the same place over a thousand years ago. A paper just published in Nature, and co-researched by the Museum’s environmental archaeologist Professor Mark Robinson, looked at the genotypes of more than 2,000 people and found some surprising results.

The People of the British Isles (POBI) survey selected people with grandparents who were born in shared rural locations, so as to remove the effects of recent population movements, and created the first fine-scale genetic map of any country in the world. It showed that the UK’s population could be divided into 17 genetically distinct groups, most with very little interbreeding for the last thousand years or more.

A genetic map of Britain created by the People of the British Isles study
A genetic map of Britain created by the People of the British Isles study

The Romans, Danish Vikings and Normans, despite conquering Britain, seem to have made not much of a mark genetically. However, there is an Anglo-Saxon component to the population of south east, central and eastern England and, as might be expected, the inhabitants of Orkney are partly Norse (Norwegian). In both these areas, the earlier populations were not wiped out but merged with the invaders.

Amongst the surprising discoveries was the fact that many of the groups in north and west Britain seem to have been living in the same areas as their Celtic-speaking tribal ancestors since at least the 6th century. If you’re Welsh you may be more genetically similar to an Ice Age settler than you are to someone from Bristol or Liverpool. If you’re Cornish, you are most likely from a genetically different group to a Devonian.

And if you have ever thought of yourself as belonging to an ancient Celtic kingdom, you’d better decide which one as there was no single ‘Celtic’ genetic group. In fact, the parts of the UK in which the Celtic language survived longest (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are among the most different from each other genetically.

While our ancestral history is very interesting, it is not the primary purpose of the research study. Instead, the research group, led by Sir Walter Bodmer and Professor Peter Donnelly, is looking to decipher the genetic structure of the UK in order to track down genes associated with common human diseases.

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