Ancient DNA (aDNA), genetic genealogy and biohistory
We are interested in how biohistorical techniques - in particular the analysis of ancient DNA - can be used to investigate and help us understand the lives and familial relationships of medieval and modern historical people. Biohistory considers evidence for historical persons drawn from scientific analysis of human remains, and presents a field in which archaeologists, geneticists, historians and genealogists can develop fruitful cooperation.
Around 5550 ancient human genomes had been published by 2020 (Society of American Archaeology, 2019) with more released since. These discoveries are making a major impact on the field of genetic genealogy, stimulating an interest in early population history and the role of aDNA data in forming a better understanding of ‘ancestry’.
We are based in the Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme at the University of Strathclyde and carry out research in genetic genealogy, its methods, applications and appropriate use. We are interested in developing collaborative research into the impact of ancient DNA on biohistory, with the aim of maximising the valuable information to be gained from sequencing aDNA, for the benefit of all fields of interest. Such research could include the following themes and questions:
- Kinship. What role do kinship networks and family structures play in understanding the historical context for ancient, medieval and modern human remains? Is there a role in this for techniques of relationship matching developed within genetic genealogy?
- Deep ancestry. The fitting of new aDNA results into the patrilineal and matrilineal trees being built from Y and mtDNA research within genetic genealogy.
- Naming the dead. Is the identification and naming of historical remains – on the model of Richard III – extendable beyond celebrated historical figures to the non-famous e.g. in excavated churchyards? Would this be of interest to social and family history, and community reconstruction?
- Ethics of biohistory. What are the ethics of extracting DNA from historical human remains, or attempting to identify facts about them within a biohistorical approach?
- Admixture and public understanding. How can discoveries about ancestry and biogeographical admixture be understood by and communicated meaningfully to the wider public interested in such issues?
- Citizen science. Is there a role to be played by citizen or community science in developing these areas of enquiry, and how can it be sensitively and usefully employed?
Impact of aDNA on genetic genealogy
Increasingly, websites used by genetic genealogists are incorporating data extracted from the published results of aDNA analysis. One specific example of this can be seen in Family Tree DNA’s Discover More https://discover.familytreedna.com/ feature. By entering a SNP name such as R-M222 and clicking on the Ancient Connections link https://discover.familytreedna.com/y-dna/R-M222/ancient , it is possible to identify whether anyone carrying that SNP shares a common paternal line ancestor with one of the aDNA test results uploaded to the FTDNA website.
This is done by clicking on one of the links at the top of the screen. Information is then provided about the individual whose archaeological remains have been analysed and with whom a common ancestor is shared, along with a predicted date for when the common ancestor lived.
Although most of these dates will currently be from around 2,000 years or more ago, the time span will reduce as more aDNA samples from the medieval and early modern period are sequenced. It is samples from this period that are the particular focus of interest for genetic genealogists and where collaboration between archaeologists, geneticists, historians and genealogists can prove most fruitful in informing our knowledge of families and individuals in the historical period.