SKELETON CREW DIG UP PAST...
New website can help trace your ancestry
FOR centuries, it has been at the root of arguments and wars, and it may have been the unpalatable germ that planted the seeds of Brexit.
But from next month, genetic ancestry could be no more contentious than clicking a computer mouse.
Technology developed in Yorkshire will enable anyone who has given a sample to determine how much of their DNA matches that of Roman Britons, Vikings or one of five other populations.
Soon, around 400 other groups will also be available for instant comparison.
A website set up by a lecturer at Sheffield University will compare uploaded DNA with that extracted from 2,200 skeletons and mummies at archeological digs and in museums.
“Until recently there wasn’t much to do with those bones outside of standard archaeological analysis,” said Dr Eran Elhaik, who lectures in human genetics. “But in recent years, paleo-genetic technologies have allowed the extraction of DNA from bones.”
The ancient data has become incomplete over the centuries, but its limitations have been mitigated by a using system of genetic “markers” in a new type of mutation sufficiently informative to identify and classify former populations.
Dr Elhaik said the principle was similar to that in the novel and film Jurassic Park.
“We both want to study the DNA to reconstruct the past, either in reality or metaphorically. They couldn’t reconstruct the dinosaur – they had to use frog DNA,” he said. “We don’t do that.”
The prospect of tracing individual genetic history by up to 40,000 years far outstripped
what is possible through conventional genealogy, whose limit is around 500 years, he said.
“We wanted to bring paleogenetics to the public and allow them to extend their research on their history by thousands and thousands of years.
“It’s the least speculative way of doing genetics – it’s the real stuff. You’re taking DNA directly from skeletons or mummies and comparing it to your own DNA.”
The tests will be available on a public website, www. ancientdnahub.com, launching in about two weeks’ time, which will show the genetic similarity of an individual’s DNA to that of Vikings, Egyptian mummies, Israelites, Roman Britons, Stone and Ice Age Europeans and native Americans.
“Some people will take it more seriously than others. It’s something to bring up at the dinner table,” Dr Elhaik said.
“Our interest is to engage people in research and share the knowledge. I don’t think people will start dressing up as Vikings in the streets – I see mainly educational and recreational purposes, not the rise of some sort of new nationalism.”
Asked how the information might be perceived, he said: “The dominant view on nationalism is that all nations are made up entities that consist of people from various origins.
“However, parts of the world are leaning towards primordialism – England for the English, Brexit – some people do believe that they descend directly from past populations.
“But I can tell you right now, no one will come up as 100 per cent ancient Briton. I would be happy to be proved wrong.”
He added: “Just like Darwin’s study did not end racism, we can’t predict what people will do with the results. We’re just reporting the science.”
I don’t think people will start dressing up as Vikings in the streets. Dr Eran Elhaik, lecturer in human genetics at the University of Sheffield.
GENE GENIE: Dr Eran Elhaik, the academic behind the new public website, at work in his lab at Sheffield University’s department of animal and plant sciences.