Friday, 22 February 2013

Meet The Izzards

BBC1 screened a very interesting programme over the nights of Wednesday 20th February and Thursday 21st February 2013. In Meet The Izzards comedian, actor, and marathon runner Eddie Izzard used state of the art DNA analysis techniques to discover where his family originated from. The first programme dealt with his mother's line, while the second focused on his father's lineage. Each was extremely illuminating.

The start of the first programme promised an epic journey over ten thousand generations of ancestry, a task that can only now be completed for the first time using new DNA analysis techniques. Eddie began by visiting the genetic science department at the University of Edinburgh, where his DNA was analysed and recorded.

Genetic mapping involves discovering markers in shared DNA. Put very simply, these markers can denote ancestry in specific areas of the world at certain times. The marker 'L' is the earliest and refers to Africa and the origin of all human existence. Eddie's first stop on his journey was therefore Africa, specifically Namibia.

There he met a local tribe who taught him about their hunter-gatherer existence, which is very similar to how Eddie's ancestors would have lived two hundred thousand years ago. Eddie's second key marker revealed that his ancestors lived in East Africa around sixty thousand years ago, so that is where he travelled to next.

In fact, his destination was the point at which it is believed the earliest humans first left Africa. Eddie planned to retrace his ancestor's footsteps across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait into Yemen, where coincidentally he was born, however political unrest meant that he was unable to do so.

The next significant marker was from around eighteen thousand years ago in the Middle East. This is particularly important in the development of humankind, as it relates to the birth of agriculture. Eddie visited Turkey where he learnt about how humans overcame an intolerance to animal milk as a result of genetic changes. He also learnt that everybody with blue eyes, like Eddie himself, can be traced back to the Black Sea coast 10,000 years ago.

From here there were two main migration routes into Europe: into southern Europe, and into central and northern Europe. Eddie's direct ancestors on his mother's side moved north, specifically into Scandinavia. Since this marker relates to only 2000 years ago Eddie was able to meet people in Denmark who share direct genetic ancestors with him.

Eddie's next genetic marker on his mother's side was in England in around 500-1000AD, meaning most likely that he had Viking ancestors who travelled to the country during this time.

After exhausting his mother's lineage Eddie turned his attention to his father's DNA ancestry in the second episode of Meet The Izzards. Eddie's father had already managed to trace his family tree back to around 1650, but DNA analysis allows research to extend much further back into history, although not to the specificity of individual ancestors.

The oldest known marker of the male 'Y' chromosome dates to around 150,000 years ago in Cameroon, Africa. All modern males are genetically linked to this one ancestor. Eddie visited the Equatorial Rainforest to meet a local tribe and learn about hunting-gathering, much as he had done in the first episode. As with his maternal line, his paternal DNA shows that his ancestors crossed the Red Sea from Africa into Arabia.

A new piece of information, however, was that Eddie's DNA is 2.8% Neanderthal, which is higher than average. It is believed that Neanderthals, an entirely difference species from Homo Sapiens, were white in complexion and originated from Europe, whereas the earliest humans were black and from Africa.

Eddie's next important genetic marker, known as 'I2', links him to central Europe around 20,000 years ago. This was around the time of the last Ice Age, meaning that Eddie's ancestors would have had to have adapted well to the conditions in order to survive. After the end of the Ice Age Eddie's ancestors migrated to Saxony, and from there on to England as Saxons, most likely around 500AD.

Part travel show, part history lesson, Meet The Ancestors was both interesting and entertaining. It is fascinating to think that everybody on the planet is linked genetically if you go back far enough. If you missed the programme then I highly suggest you catch it on the BBC iPlayer, or alternatively check out the website.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Remains of Richard III

Efforts are underway today to finally uncover the long lost grave of the English king Richard III. Richard, who allegedly arranged for the murder of his two young nephews in the "princes in the Tower" story, was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The exact whereabouts of his grave and remains has been lost over time, but historical records show that the body was taken to the church of the Greyfriars Franciscan friary in Leicester. That building has long since disappeared, but archaeologists believe that they can locate it under a modern car park.

If they are successful, and they find the church and human remains, then DNA testing will be carried out. From a genealogical perspective this is amazing, as the DNA of the remains will be compared with a modern descendant of Richard III. Canadian Joy Ibsen, now deceased, was confirmed as a descendant of the royal line, and had previously had her DNA sampled to be used in Plantagenet genealogy research.

It is going to be very interesting to discover if the remains of the famous Richard III have finally be found, and how this will enhance our understanding of the man and his life.

UPDATE: Excavation work at the site has revealed the church, chapter house, cloisters.....and reasonably well preserved human remains. These remains have now been sent for DNA analysis, which should take between 8-12 weeks. After this point we will know if the final resting place of Richard III has been discovered. 

UPDATE: At a press conference this morning (Monday 4th February 2013) researchers from the University of Leicester confirmed that the remains found in a Leicester car park were indeed those of King Richard III. The DNA evidence, in conjunction with the genealogical evidence carried out by the university's project genealogist Professor Kevin Schurer, confirms beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton is that of Richard III. His remains will now be buried in Leicester Cathedral.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Scotland's People Release Valuation Rolls For 1905

Back in April last year I wrote about how it was now possible to view the Valuation Rolls for 1915 on the Scotland's People website. Well, they have now released 74000 more images, this time for the year 1905. The files can be searched by name or address, and contain "the names of the owners, tenants and occupiers of each property."

While the 1905 Valuation Rolls do list entire families as the census does, they are nevertheless useful for pinpointing exactly where an ancestor was living midway through the decade. They can therefore be used along with the 1901 and 1911 census records, and the 1915 Valuation Rolls, to create a time-line of an ancestor's movements over a 14 year period. 

Another useful feature of the Valuation Rolls is helping to establish an ancestor's social class. Knowing whether they owned or rented a property is helpful in determining their status. 

The Valuation Rolls for 1905 and 1915 can be searched now at Scotland's People