It is exactly two years since we launched our ancestral DNA project with ScotlandsDNA, and 18 months since BritainsDNA, IrelandsDNA and YorkshiresDNA began to send out results to customers. We have learned a great deal about our history and much of what we do has developed and grown with this knowledge.
Our research has also begun to rewrite history, sometimes spectacularly. For example, it used to be thought that the greatest revolution in our history, the coming of farming, was a process of acculturation. People learned it from their neighbours and then passed it on as the new ideas moved westwards from their origins in the Fertile Crescent, modern Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon and Israel. DNA suggests a very different picture.
Britain and Ireland have the highest concentration in the world of men who carry the R1b haplogroup and its subgroups. Recent testing has confirmed that in England, 60% have it, in Scotland the frequency is 72% and a staggering 84% of all Irishmen have this extremely successful and vigorous Y chromosome lineage, inherited from their fathers and their fathers before them.
Why such a huge percentage?
Our historians and scientists believe that they have worked out an answer.
The cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals changed the world utterly and these techniques must have arrived in boats, probably the skin-boats known as curraghs. Bags of seed and domesticated animals were somehow brought across the sea.
These men may have carried the Y chromosome lineage of G. Early farmers in Europe certainly had it and ancient DNA extracted from skeletons in a prehistoric cemetery in France suggests groups of incoming men with the new skills who took native women as partners. Indeed 26 of 31 farmer skeletons tested from three sites in Germany, France and Spain belong to the G group, as does Ötzi the famous ice man of 3300 BC (84% of farmer skeletons are in the G group). The farmers show clear genetic links to the Near East where they originated.
The G-Men may have established farming in Britain and Ireland but their successful culture was almost obliterated by what amounted to an invasion, even a genocide, some time around 2,500BC. The frequency of G in Britain and Ireland is now only between 1% and 2%.
Very recent research using whole Y chromosome sequence data has tentatively dated the origins of R1b to the middle of the third millennium BC. This is the time of a dynamic group known as the Beaker People. Characterised by their production of fine pottery (sometimes known as bell beakers), the new skills of metalworking and a fascination for archery, they came north from Iberia to colonise Britain and Ireland and they appear to have been ruthless in replacing the men who carried the G markers and other lineages.
Evidence of the association of R1b with the Beaker folk comes from a number of sources. Firstly, two skeletons from a Beaker site in Germany are the only ancient humans reported so far to carry R1b. It has never been found in the bones of anyone – farmer or hunter-gatherer – earlier than 2600BC, or indeed later. Second, the distribution of R1b, in particular the S116 subgroup which accounts for most British and Irish R1b, is related to the geographic spread of the Beaker culture, and S116 is thought to have originated in Iberia. Third, there is a strong correlation within Italy of the frequency of an S116 subgroup called S28 and the distribution of bell Beaker sites. Finally, whole Y chromosome data reveals a massive expansion in numbers at around this time, a starburst of new lineages can be seen, as each man had many sons, so the population of R1b was increasing rapidly in size.
Beakers are found in very large numbers in Britain and Ireland.
One of the richest and most revealing prehistoric burial sites was discovered in 2002 near Stonehenge. Immediately dubbed The Amesbury Archer, the individual was in fact a metal worker, a smith. In addition to his last, the grave contained gold and copper objects as well as beakers. But like many Beaker burials, it also produced the remains of archery kit – flint arrowheads and a wristguard. It may well be that archery gave the invading carriers of R1b a clear military advantage as they fought to seize land from the first farmers, the men with G lineages. Four thousand years later, English longbowmen made a decisive difference against larger armies in the pivotal battles of The Hundred Years War, at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. Perhaps the R1b bowmen enjoyed a similar advantage in prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Archery was certainly important to them.
More evidence for rapid and decisive change in prehistoric Britain and Ireland can be found in studies of mitochondrial DNA, what mothers pass on to their children. Recent analysis of ancient maternally inherited mtDNA also reveals that European hunter-gatherers carry a different mix of lineages from the first farmers, who in turn are different from the later Beaker folk. Like their Y chromosome counterparts, the early farmer mtDNA lineages are now rare in modern Europeans, while the lineages found in Beaker skeletons are more common, particularly in Britain, Ireland and western Europe. This provides strong independent evidence for a series of folk migrations across Europe, culminating in the takeover of Britain and Ireland.
The carriers of R1b almost certainly brought Celtic languages. It is thought that around 2,500BC the common Indo-European language spoken in much of Europe had begun to break up into dialects. These included Celtic which is attested in various forms in ancient Iberia. Eminent prehistorians argue that the ancestor of Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Cornish made its way up the Atlantic-facing coasts by way of enclave colonisation and perhaps also as a language of trade and exchange. And one of the most famous texts in Irish, the Lebor Gabala Erenn, the Book of the Taking of Ireland, and the famous Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 recount a migration from Iberia. It may well be the memory of a real invasion.
With the development of our new testing chip, Chromo2, we are excited about the discoveries that lie ahead. Many of you have already received your Chromo2 results, which we hope provide fresh insights into your genetic heritage, and where you come from. As more and more results are sent out at a now steady rate, many of you are also in great anticipation of your All My Ancestry test results, as they will begin to be delivered from this Friday onwards. As we look ahead to the years to come, we are very grateful to all our customers for their valuable role in our ongoing research into the genetic makeup and origins of a nation.