Surnames and the Y chromosome

Dr Turi E King, Research Fellow and Project Manager of the Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain. Lead researcher on 'The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in the North of England' project.

Surnames and the Y chromosome


Research Fellow:

Dr Turi King

Click here for information on the Viking DNA project

In Britain, we have heritable surnames. As they are passed down through the paternal line, surnames become a marker of a family group and even dynasties and act as a cultural marker of common ancestry. Many surnames are highly geographically localized giving additional information as to where the surname, and  potentially a current bearer’s paternal ancestor, originated. One piece of our DNA, the Y chromosome, is also passed down through the paternal line thus mirroring the transmission of surnames and acting as a biological marker of common ancestry. Previous work has shown that these two different types of marker are linked and that this link is stronger the rarer the surname. This connection allows us to use surnames as a time machine: sampling men bearing surnames tied to a particular area in the past provides us with a lens through which to view the genetic make-up of the pre-industrial British population.


This project utilized this cultural-genetic toolkit to understand past male migration with a main focus on the genetic legacy of the Vikings in the north of England but also to look at geographical structure in other parts of Britain. Genetic data was combined with archaeological, surname and place-name data and these multiple strands were brought together utilizing, among other methods, GIS approaches to give a more rounded picture of the extent of the Viking migration to this area of Britain. Here this project overlapped with project five and it’s study of Viking place-names.This project also overlapped with an exploration of the impact of the results of genetic testing on participants' feelings of identity and perceived ancestry as part of project four.

Sampling of cultural groups, such as the Romany peoples thought to have arrived in Britain during the 16th and 17th century, allowed us to explore whether the genetic signal of their ancestry remained among these groups today or whether integration with the local population over the generations resulted in a cultural transmission of identity which is not mirrored by genetics.

Other strands of this project involved examining the vast quantities of genetic/surname data which are becoming newly available online through the activities of genetic genealogists. These data, complemented by closely targeted sampling, were exploited to systematically examine changes in patterns of Y chromosome diversity in Britain over the last few hundred years, and hence the importance of recent population movement in obscuring older, deeper patterns.

Research was also carried out into the utility of the link between surnames and the Y chromosome in the fields of population genetics, forensics and epidemiology.

Results of all these aspects of research either have been published or will be forthcoming shortly.

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