Jodie Lampert's Bodmin Moor (and general Cornwall & Devon) project

I undertook a PhD project focused on the history and population genetics of Cornwall, and Bodmin Moor in particular. I was co-supervised by Prof Mark Jobling (Department of Genetics), and Dr Richard Jones (School of History).

See here for my new project, Growing the Y-chromosome tree with the help of citizen science.

Cornwall is the most remote and inaccessible county in England. It is located on a peninsula and almost completely surrounded on all sides by water, with the River Tamar creating a border between Cornwall and the rest of England. Despite joining the Anglo-Saxon empire in the 10th century, the people of Cornwall typically referred to England as beginning east of the Tamar.  With their own language, society, and customs, the Cornish people were sometimes even considered a separate nation or ‘race’. Recent genetic studies from the University of Oxford have shown clear differentiation between people of Cornish and Devon ancestry, aligned with the natural boundaries of the River Tamar and Bodmin Moor.

Some of the Cornish separation from outside influences may be due to the unique landscape features of the region. Besides being surrounded by water, there are many natural barriers in the Cornish landscape, including rivers, marshes, peat bogs, and isolated upland areas, making the area difficult to access and shielding it from outside influence. One such upland area is Bodmin Moor which, along with the Tamar River, separates Cornwall from Devon.

Many of the parishes around Bodmin Moor consist of small isolated hamlets that are hard to reach by the casual traveller. Davidstow is among the highest villages in Cornwall; Altarnun is open moorland with the village in secluded valleys; St. Neot is bounded on almost all sides by rivers; and Warleggan, up in the hillside above the moor was, until recently, the “most remote place in Cornwall.” For the parishes surrounding it, Bodmin Moor may have acted as a barrier, preventing communications between them or the outside world. Up until the mid-nineteenth century the moor was extremely difficult to cross due to the lack of roads and signposts and the hazard of being swallowed up by peat bogs. It was often described as an inhospitable, bleak, and endless wasteland which “conveys a sense of loneliness and isolation quite out of proportion to its size, and until recent years, those who lived on it were in a world of their own”.

Many of the families living on the moor today have been there for many generations and a study of their surnames can provide insight into the genetic makeup of the moor communities. Surnames and Y chromosomes usually are inherited together and therefore can tell us about ancestry, both recent and even as far back as when surnames were established in England in the 1300s. As surnames are passed down from father to son, so are Y chromosomes, which over time accumulate mutations, for example in the form of repeated segments of DNA called Short Tandem Repeats (STRs). The number and type of these repeats can help to distinguish males related to one another. Men with rarer surnames often have Y-chromosome patterns similar to one another, while those with more common surnames are generally less related in their Y-chromosome types.

My project was based around surnames that have been in the Bodmin Moor area since the 1500s. Studying these surnames and their associated Y-chromosome STR patterns, I asked the following questions: How did the moor affect contact between the surrounding communities, and between these communities and other parts of Cornwall? To what extent did Bodmin Moor prevent or foster communication between the people in the surrounding areas? Is the boundary between Cornwall and Devon reflected in the genetics of people with ancestry from these different areas?

As well as this now completed work, I am working on another project to use data gathered by citizen scientists who have had their Y chromosomes sequenced by companies such as Family Tree DNA or Full Genomes. If you are interested in participating and contributing your Y chromosome sequence data, please see the project page here. I am especially interested in men with ancestry from Cornwall or Devon, but other British Isles ancestries are welcome as well.

Please note that I am not able to recruit women as DNA donors in this study, because I am analysing the male-specific Y chromosome. Also, we are not able to return individual-specific results to participants, though an overall summary of the project and its conclusions will be available once it is complete. All published results will be anonymous.

View the list of surnames here.

If you would like to participate and have one of the surnames listed, as well as local ancestry, please contact me at jel27@le.ac.uk. Also, if you have general questions or suggestions, please get in touch!

For updates on my research project, please click here.

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