Genes reveal West African heritage of Englishmen
Gene tests on a sample of “indigenous” Englishmen have thrown up a surprise black ancestry, providing new insight into a centuries-old African presence in Britain.
The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, identified a rare West African Y chromosome in a group of men from Yorkshire who share a surname that dates back at least as far as the mid-14th century and have a typical European appearance. They owe their unusual Y chromosome to an African man living in England at least 250 years ago and perhaps as early as Roman times, the researchers say.
Mark Jobling at the University of Leicester, UK, and colleagues recruited 421 men who described themselves as British and analysed their genes as part of a survey of British Y chromosome diversity. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that one individual in the study carried a very rare Y chromosome, called hgA1.
This particular variant has previously been identified in only 26 people worldwide, three African Americans and 23 men living in West African countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. “It’s so distinctive, it really sticks out like a sore thumb,” Jobling says of the chromosome’s unique sequence. He adds that it is virtually impossible for this sequence to have coincidentally evolved in Britain.
The white British subject with the hgA1 variant, however, knew of no African family connection.
To explore the mysterious origin of his Y chromosome scientists recruited 18 other men that shared his rare surname, which dates back to the first use of surnames, hundreds of years ago, and was first recorded in the county of Yorkshire, in northern England. The researchers have not disclosed the surname to maintain the men’s privacy.
The team hoped that this would help them pinpoint when the hgA1 had variant entered the lineage, since Y chromosomes, like surnames, are passed from father to son.
Of the 18 men with the Yorkshire surname, six of them carried the hgA1 Y chromosome – including one man in the US, whose ancestors had migrated from England in 1894.
Genealogical records linked these men to two family trees, both dating back to the 1780s in Yorkshire. Jobling believes that these two genealogies are connected by a common male ancestor of West African descent living in England at least 250 years ago.
The British men carry an hgA1 Y chromosome that closely matches the one identified in men presently living in West Africa. This suggests that the former group’s black ancestor arrived in Britain within the past few thousand years. Had their hgA1 Y chromosome been introduced any thousands of years earlier, when humans first migrated from Africa to Europe, its sequence would have shown greater divergence from the one currently found in West Africa.
The hgA1 Y chromosome could perhaps have entered the gene pool in northern England 1800 years ago when Africans fought there as Roman soldiers, Jobling says. It also might have been introduced in the 9th century, when Vikings brought captured North Africans to Britain, according to some historians.
But scientists note that the majority of black men with the hgA1 variant currently live in Guinea-Bissau and nearby countries in West Africa. Because many slaves from this area came to Britain beginning in the mid-16th century, it is likely that the white men with the hgA1 variant have a black ancestor that arrived this way, researchers say.
This ancestor could have been a first-generation immigrant African or one whose family had lived in Britain for generations.
Jobling says his study provides the first evidence of a long-lived African presence in Britain. He adds that it raises the possibility that relationships among black and white people was perhaps more historically acceptable in Britain than some people might believe.
Vincent Brown of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, agrees and points to the example of Olaudah Equiano, a slave from West Africa who bought his freedom in Britain in the mid 18th century and achieved fame for his writing. Equiano lived in London and eventually married a white woman, notes Brown, who studies the history of slavery.
The new findings are unusual because they reveal the hidden African ancestry of white men, Jobling says. He notes that it is much more common for studies to discover or confirm the reverse. For example, gene tests gave strong evidence that the black descendents of the slave Sally Hemmings could also trace their ancestry to her "owner", the third US president, Thomas Jefferson (Nature, vol 396, p 27).
And several years ago, Jobling’s team found that more than a quarter of British African-Caribbean men have a Y chromosome which traces back to Europe rather than Africa.
Yorkshire clan linked to Africa
UK men discover long African lineage
First Genetic Evidence Of Long-lived African Presence Within Britain
Rare African DNA Discovered in White British Males
Tracing the route of our shared DNA from Africa to Yorkshire
Tykes are out of Africa
Sub-Saharan African Y chromosome haplogroup A in white British surname