thinking outside the tank

R1b haplogroup – not a Viking then

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Towards the end of last year, Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, I went to an event which was part of the Nordic Festival. Professor Stephen Harding of Nottingham University was collecting DNA samples from male volunteers as part of a study into the distribution and migration of different groups of people. This was a Y-chromosome analysis, so only men were involved. The event was billed as Find out if you’re a Viking and there was no shortage of would-be pillagers – 195 in all.

BBC Look Northwest

Pillager or villager?

We queued for ages to twizzle a little brush around the insides of our mouths and hand over our genetic life history in a sample tube. I couldn’t help thinking it might have been easier to give us all a stick of gum while we waited. When we got to the head of the line we could just transfer the gum to the sample bottle. 

The BBC was there and there was a feature on the local news that evening – my starring performance is shown to the left – thrilling for me but not even worthy of YouTube. The burning question was: are these the legs of a villager or a pillager?

The results came back this week. They were beautifully personalised and detailed. The analysis was based on detection of what are called Short Tandem Repeats on the Y-chromosome. These act somewhat like a fingerprint and identify the individual as having a particular chromosome type or ‘haplotype’. At a higher level of classification, a person belongs to a particular ‘haplogroup’ and it is at this level that groups of people and their movements can be traced.

It turns out that I belong to haplogroup R1b, along with 67% of the Liverpool sample. In the view of the researchers, members of this haplogroup represent the spread of farming populations towards the north-west of Europe probably as the last Ice Age retreated in Neolithic (New Stone Age) times. How disappointing for me that I wasn’t in haplogroup R1a, a strong Norse Viking indicator, and therefore in no way related to shape-changer and rune-master Egil Skallagrimsson or any of the other saga heroes from Norse literature. It turned out that only 4% (about 7) of the men who gave a DNA sample belonged to haplogroup R1a.

Distribution of 'my people'

Distribution of 'my people'

My personalised report also shows on a map the worlwide locations with the greatest frequency of occurrrence of my haplotype. This was generated by reference to a database containing about 75,000 samples. It matched 147 men with my haplotype, and gave some curious results, possibly related to the relatively small number of samples available. I suspect the map might show the distribution of DNA laboratories and genetics researchers as much as anything. 

Top of the list was among the Cajun population of the southern USA (5%), and then Connecticut (4%). In Europe, the strongest matches were in Sweden: Jokkmokk near the Arctic Circle (3%), and Ostergotland/Jonkoping in the south (2.5%).

I’m guessing my ancestors crawled towards a Louisiana swamp rather than out of it. That there are no occurrences of my haplotype in Iceland and Greenland suggests that my Swedish ancestors didn’t take part in the great westerly migration of Scandinavian peoples to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland – later called Connecticut. If they had my level of risk aversion they would have been in the second or third wave, probably waiting for unsinkable ships to be built in about 1912.

I like the idea that I might share a history with the Saami people of northern Sweden. I’m much more comfortable in the cold than in the heat, and happier in the wilderness than in the city. Herding reindeer while gazing at the Aurora – that’s an appealing life, punctuated only by occasional visits from Ray Mears and Swedish Air Force survivalists.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst 2009


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