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.
Today’s top news story: Ian Gibson, a Norwich MP and former scientist has announced that a cluster of child diabetes cases in Norfolk may be caused by inbreeding. Cue, of course, all the usual jokes about Norfolk stereotypes: country yokels marrying their sister, and so on. Dr Gibson, interviewed on Today,* seemed rather affronted by any suggestion that he was being insulting. His response: he was using “inbreeding” in a purely technical manner which us laughing yokels don’t understand. I see.
Much as Dr Gibson has been criticised for “not understanding genetics” and so on, he may well have a point. As I’ve mentioned before, people don’t move around very much. In years gone by, people moved around even less; migration is hard work. It’s not too surprising, in other words, to find that illnesses with a strong genetic factor may have strong regional variations too.** It might be simplistic to say “diabetes may be regionally concentrated because of inbreeding,” because there are lots of other causative factors involved. You can’t pretend, though, that regional variations are unlikely to exist.
* only a few minutes ago! Damn, this blog can be up-to-the-minute occasionally.
** My psychotic aunt – clinically diagnosed, I’m not just being rude about her – is from Norfolk too. I wonder if anyone has looked to see if there are similar clusters of mental illnesses with a strong hereditary component.