WHEN it comes to researching family histories, most of us might manage to go back a few hundred years at most.
The more curious will spend decades taking research back many centuries. But now, the inexpensive availability of the latest in DNA investigative techniques is bringing the chance to discover our earliest origins within everyone’s reach.
It was on St Andrew’s Day last year that the Scotland’s DNA project was launched by local writer, broadcaster and historian Alistair Moffat and geneticist, Dr Jim Wilson.
Towards the end of the summer, Southern editor Susan Windram and myself took the project saliva test, which involved spitting into a special tube which was then sealed and posted on to the London lab for screening.
The data results of that screening process were then returned to the Borders and analysed, with a personalised report prepared by Alistair for both of us.
And this week, he came to TheSouthern offices in Selkirk to reveal what the probe into our genetic pasts had revealed.
And what a fascinating meeting it turned out to be as the history of Scotland unfolded through our personal genetic tales.
“You guys have amazingly contrasting results,” Alistair told us. “Mark, you are Mr Ancient Scotland. Your marker is absolutely classic, while you Susan are a First Farmer, an incomer. And they represent the two great events in Scotland’s history.
“Essentially everyone has six billion letters of DNA – three billion from your mum, three billion from your dad. But during reproduction, wee mistakes are made, little errors in copying all the letters of your DNA with some getting out of place.
“These mistakes are called markers. You look for where these markers are most numerous, and crucially where they have the most mutations, where they have changed most. That means it is where they have been longest.
“These markers can then be tracked as they move across the Earth.”
Alistair explained that the mtDNA marker inherited from my mother’s maternal lineage – it can only be passed on by women to their children – had first arisen some 40,000 years ago in central Asia. It represents the group of women he calls the ‘Pioneers’, and is the most common in all of Europe and carried by 27.8 per cent of the British population.
The pioneers were women who emerged some 9,000 before the birth of Jesus to help recolonise Europe after the end of the last ice age.
Emerging from cave refuges in southern France and northern Spain, where they had fled as their northern homelands were devastated by the last ice age, they again expanded northwards as the ice retreated, following the great herds of reindeer and other animals on which they depended for survival.
Susan’s mtDNA marker is ‘J’ representing the ‘First Farmers’ group, to which 10.2 per cent of us belong.
Originally hunter-gatherers, they moved west from Asia around 30,000BC and into the lands of the Near East.
Here, some time after 9,000BC, these people slowly became the world’s first farmers, developing the fledgling practices of agriculture which would lead to an explosion in the planet’s population. Their cultivation of wheat and the invention of what was basically porridge led to a doubling of the number of children born.
It means Susan’s ancestors, fanning out across the world, changed history in the most dramatic way possible and arrived in the British Isles around 3,000BC.
As for me, that left my fatherline to be explored. My dominant YDNA marker is that of the Pretani, the people who gave Britain its name.
The S-145 marker which identifies the Pretani, is regarded as the quintessential Celtic marker and is carried by 32.1 per cent of British men.
And, if your paternal line is Scottish, it is then most likely you descend from the Picts. Alistair took up the explanation: “The population of Scotland has very ancient lineages and you, Mark, are a perfect example. The balance of probability is that your people have been here for at least 10,000 years on both sides.”
Susan says being involved in the project has taken her back to the start of her ancestral journey.
“It is fascinating to think that I have come from a long line of women who were at the heart of the greatest revolution in world history, the invention, development and transmission of the techniques of domesticating animals and growing crops.
“That they were instrumental in shaping, quite literally, who we are today. My mum probably has no idea that just as she was feeding us porridge to get our day off to a good start, so our ancestors began the process, ensuring not only their own children’s survival and growth, but prompting a sustained and rapid increase in population.
“This has certainly whetted my appetite to find out more.”