A new Norse saga! DNA detectives in the Viking North West

Posted by pt91 at Jan 24, 2011 11:10 AM |
University of Leicester geneticists are involved in a truly epic research project
A new Norse saga! DNA detectives in the Viking North West

‘Viking DNA: The Wirral and West Lancashire Project’, published by Nottingham University Press.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 24 January 2011

The Vikings are alive and well and living in the North West of England!  That’s the revelation in a new book on an epic research project into the genetic footprint of the Scandinavian invaders.

‘Viking DNA: The Wirral and West Lancashire Project’ is the culmination of several years of research by biochemists and geneticists, by Wirral-raised Professor Steve Harding from The University of Nottingham and Professor Mark Jobling and Dr Turi King from the University of Leicester. It shows the power of modern DNA methods to probe ancestry using the North West of England as an example.

The North West has long been known to have special links with the Vikings going back over a thousand years, through archaeological evidence, ancient manuscripts, local surnames and placenames such as ‘Thingwall’ from the Old Norse ‘ping-vollr’ meaning ‘meeting place’. It’s believed many of the Vikings, of mainly Norwegian origin, ended up in the region after being expelled from Ireland in AD902.

The new book tells the story of how 21st century genetic methods have been used in conjunction with historical and linguistic evidence to investigate the Viking ancestry of Wirral and neighbouring West Lancashire. Rigorous DNA analysis of samples of the local population, focusing on people who had surnames present in the regions prior to 1600, has scientifically proved that the Vikings settled heavily in the area and left a huge genetic legacy which survives and continues today.  

The researchers’ new ‘Norse saga’ unfolded as they carried out cheek swab DNA tests on around 100 men from the area who had local surnames dating back hundreds of years, some taken from a tax register from the time of King Henry VIII. Other lists of old names included people contributing to the stipends of priests, alehouse records and criminal records, for example the namesake of one of the authors is accused in 1348 of vandalising hedges (found not guilty!).  Only men were chosen because they carry the Y-chromosome, DNA on which is passed down the paternal line from father to son with little or no change, unlike the other chromosomes.

The results found that up to 50 per cent of the DNA from the men of both Old Wirral and Old West Lancashire ancestry was indeed Viking in origin. The full scientific study appeared in the leading journal ‘Molecular Biology and Evolution’ but has now been put into context for a wider audience in this new, full colour-illustrated book which pulls together all the evidence, both scientific and historical.

Geneticist Professor Mark Jobling said: “We rely on the interest and generosity of DNA donors for all of our studies, and as researchers we’re committed to the public understanding of science. So great to give something back in the form of this book, and to help people get to grips with the science of genetics at the same time.”

Professor Steve Harding said: “The results were very exciting because they tie in with the other evidence from the area. The book explains the background and the DNA method in a way that everyone can understand, and should be of interest to people interested in Vikings and ancestry anywhere.  It is also a great example of community involvement in science.  Indeed one youngster from Irby on Wirral was so impressed with the results for her father that she wrote a school project called ‘My Viking Dad and his Viking Dog’”.  

Famous TV historian Michael Wood pays tribute to the book in his Foreword:

“As the best history always should, the tale involves identity, local feeling, the life lived; it suggests how in a mysterious way even the deep past still lives on in us. It also shows how gripping and informative local history can be, but how it also can vividly illuminate the big picture. It is a model applicable to every community in the UK: a perfect example of what one hopes will become the new history. Not one delivered from on high but developed at grass roots in conjunction with the people themselves, using their archaeology history and landscape, their family histories documents and memories and even their DNA.”

The Wirral and West Lancashire Viking DNA survey is now being extended to North Lancashire, Cumbria and over the Pennines to North Yorkshire to see how far the Norse settlers from the Irish Sea penetrated into medieval northern England. The researchers are also collaborating with experts in Scandinavia focusing again on people who can show their ancestry goes back many generations in particular parts of Scandinavia.  In this way they will be able to get a much better idea of what the genetic profile of Scandinavia was like in the Viking age. 

‘Viking DNA: The Wirral and West Lancashire Project’ (ISBN 978-1907284946) has been published by Nottingham University Press in association with Countyvise and is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.  166 pages, fully illustrated in colour.  There is a local launch planned for 16th February in Nottingham.

More details on the full Wirral genetic survey and the book are available at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/-sczsteve

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