Within a month, another slightly silly news story about paleogenetics. This one isn’t quite as daft as tracing the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, though. Scientists in Leicester have discovered that loosely-related members of a Yorkshire family share an African ancestor, from at least 250 years ago* and probably further back than that.
Unlike the previous story, the research in this piece is all very sensible. What’s silly is the idea that it should be surprising, or that it’s a news story that we have African ancestors. Everyone in Europe probably has black ancestry somewhere in their family tree, if you go back five hundred years or so; and definitely if you go back a thousand.** What’s depressing, I suppose, is that there are people who don’t realise this: people who think that their family is white, has always been white, always will be white. They’re wrong, of course.
* because that’s the most recently their latest common ancestor can have lived.
** I am haunted by a vague memory from university, that the skull of an African monkey, a couple of thousand years old, was found somewhere in Ireland, thus proving contact with Africa back then. I can’t find any references for this at all, though.
Today’s top news* story: English Heritage have been putting out newspaper adverts around the world announcing that they are searching for the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, claimant to the English throne in 1066. As the closest relative of Edward the Confessor, under modern law he would have received the crown; but under Saxon law kings didn’t automatically inherit their position, so he didn’t. Everyone remembers the other kings of England from 1066, but everyone forgets the teenage Edgar.
To be frank, I think it’s a silly idea. Edgar will have millions of descendants, all around the world, most of whom will have no clue and no chance of knowing. Out of these millions, only a small handful of people might be able to prove a connection.
We know this, because a few years ago geneticists managed to trace thousands of men who are probably descended from Niall Noigíallach. Niall Nine Hostages was one of the greatest kings of Ireland,** founded a rather large dynasty, and is the reason O’Neil is a common Irish surname.*** Niall lived around 1500 years ago, half as long again as Edgar, and probably fathered many, many more children than Edgar did. Nevertheless, around 20% of men in north-west Ireland are probably descended from him in the direct male line. If you include everyone who has a woman somewhere between them and Niall in their family tree, you’d probably find that everyone in Ireland is descended from him by one route or another.**** The Queen of England certainly is.
The chances are, you’re descended from someone important in history too. You won’t know it, but you almost certainly are, just because there were so many important people in the past. There’s no way of knowing it, either. English Heritage are on a bit of a wild goose chase, because the people they are looking for are in the country all around them, invisible.
* yes, another topical post
** one of the greatest kings of the Irish or Scots, in fact; when he was around, “Scots” still largely meant “people from Ireland”.
*** You can’t entirely blame him for all those crappy theme pubs though.
**** but the geneticists didn’t do that, because it would have been almost impossible.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent a while today playing with the Surname Profiler website,* looking at how distant relatives are spread around the country, now, and 125 years ago. As I was expecting, in the 19th century my mother’s family was very heavily concentrated in one area:
…because we know from her genealogy research that her father’s ancestors have lived in this village and the neighbouring one for as far back as anyone can trace.
I was also expecting to find that today, we would be spread all over the country, what with modern transport making migration much easier.** However, our own family just demonstrates what the research project proved: in the words of the project leader, “migration is traumatic.” We don’t seem to have moved about much at all:
Of course, that’s for a name that isn’t common anywhere – that site suggests that the majority of people with our name live within our local phonebook area, and that phonebook lists about 30 numbers under it. If you have a more common name, individual family movements won’t show up. Another branch of my mother’s family – still with a fairly obscure name – is from Cornwall. In 1881, almost all of them lived west of Bristol:
Our branch of that family, at the time, lived in Brixton. Not the one in Devon, though, the one at the end of the Victoria line, in a completely blank part of their family map.
* Update, August 22nd 2020: It since seems to have disappeared from the Internet.
** “Nor should we forget the benefit in rural human genetics brought by the railway: with less intermarrying the ‘village idiot’ has disappeared” – David St. John Thomas, The Country Railway, 1976.