25 March 2015

The People of the British Isles Project Announces a Genetic Map of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


Guest Blogger, Blaine Bettinger, PhD, JD is the author of www.TheGeneticGenealogist.com, one of the longest-running blogs devoted to genetic genealogy. He is a trustee of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, a member of the NGS Genetic Genealogy Committee, and a leading member of the Genetic Genealogy Standards Committee.

by Blaine Bettinger, PhD, JD


The People of the British Isles (PoBI) is an ongoing population genetics project based at the University of Oxford. Initiated in 2004, this project seeks to understand the modern-day genetic structure of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as the historical events that led to that structure.

A long-awaited study, “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population,” published in Nature, 19 March 2015, by the PoBI reveals for the first time the fine-scale genetic structure of the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Fine-scale genetic structure has been described by David E. McCauley, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, as “the nonrandom distribution of genetically similar individuals within populations.”

In order to create this detailed genetic map, the researchers analyzed the DNA of 2,039 white volunteers from rural areas throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To be eligible, all four grandparents of a volunteer had to have been born within 80 km of each other. The study, therefore, effectively analyzed DNA as it was in 1885, the average date of birth of the volunteers’ grandparents.

To provide context to the DNA of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to determine the potential sources of this DNA, the researchers also analyzed the genetic information of more than 6,000 people throughout the rest of Europe.

The DNA of the volunteers clustered into 17 regions that aligned well with historians’ current understanding of European history, although there were some surprises. Among the most interesting findings:

·       People in Wales are most similar to the early settlers that arrived in Great Britain after the last ice age (approximately 12,000 to 8,000 B.C). This could be explained by the many genetic influences that the rest of Great Britain and Northern Ireland continued to experience, while Wales remained more isolated.

·       There is no clear Celtic genetic group, as might have been expected. Indeed, the Celtic regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall appeared to be genetically very different rather than traceable to a single Celtic origin.

·       Surprisingly, Danish Vikings left behind very little genetic contribution despite controlling parts of England between the 800s and 1100s AD.

·       Norwegian Vikings also had little genetic impact except for the Orkney Islands where about 25% of the DNA was identified as Norwegian in origin.

·       Anglo-Saxons, who invaded England around 400-500 AD, had perhaps the strongest impact on British genetics. About 30% of the DNA of most of the volunteers appeared to be Anglo-Saxon in origin. 

The genetic map created by the PoBI can now be used by archeologists, linguists, and historians to better understand the peopling of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the years since the last ice age.

For genetic genealogists, these findings will help further refine the biogeographical estimates of people with genetic ancestry from Great Britain and Northern Ireland






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