DNA
The Wonderful World of Recombination

The fascinating science of DNA continues to advance apace, and is allowing many people to connect with more distant relatives they never even knew they had. It is also allowing people to discover their more recent roots, and genetic clusters that can pin their origins down to very specific geographical areas. As more and more people submit samples for genetic testing, these results will become even more accurate and precise.

One major irritation for those of us researching family history, is the amount of people taking these DNA tests who have no interest in making a family tree, or indeed, in family history research. Submitting their sample is probably done as bit of a giggle, or because they received the testing kit as a Christmas or birthday present. In the case of Ancestry.com, they will flag up the DNA connection, so you know there is somebody out there who shares your ancestry.

I have had very close connections appear, that are from people who are just submitting a sample for whatever reason, and who are not interested in family history research, and indeed, have no knowledge of whom the common forebear might be. Maybe they just want to know if they are descended from a rampaging Viking?

My own genetic results have coalesced into a more specific whole over time, and errant trace results eliminated. My updated DNA results now indicate that my genetic make-up is as follows:

England, Wales and North Western Europe 56%

Ireland and Scotland 41%

Germanic Europe 2%

Sweden 1%

In respect to the genetic clusters mentioned in the paragraphs above, I have two. One situated in Southern England and another in Southern Ireland, with a specific cluster in Limerick and Kerry. I knew of the Limerick connection via the usual family history paper trail, but the DNA evidence has confirmed it. This is one of the real boons of DNA testing, it is a wonderful way of confirming paper evidence, and even putting you into contact with cousins from around the world who may also be able to provide you with further information on your forebears. In one such instance, I have discovered that a branch of my paternal family relocated to New Zealand in the 19th century. No wonder I could not find a death certificate in the UK.

The Irish cluster in my DNA story has developed due to the huge Irish diaspora that left the country in the 1800’s. Many headed for the USA, where I believe most DNA testing samples are still submitted. These have allowed a pinpointed origin location to become clear, on the same principle as the astronomical ‘big bang’ theory, where there is an outward thrust from a single point, and that point can be traced backwards in time.

Via DNA testing, I discovered a 4th cousin in the USA and whilst perusing her public family tree, I found our common progenitor. What was in fact discovered, and it was quite a shock, was a very well hidden ‘skeleton in the closet’. This culminated in me removing a whole branch of my family tree and adding a new one. The person in America also had no idea of this well-hidden drama, or of her directly related family in England. This is the real excitement of conducting family history research. It can often be a griping detective story worthy of a novel in itself. I could certainly write a tale around what I uncovered.

The real lives of those who went before us

That is the power of DNA testing, it strips away any doubt and confirms tentative connections, or indeed, discovers completely new ones that may have lurked in the family history shadows for a very long time. It gives you clues, but makes you work hard for each one of them. It can lead you down blind alleys and to the edge of despair, but it can also lead you to amazing discoveries that have you sitting back in your chair and shaking your head. It can be a real buzz when you make that elusive connection with the past, and step into the real life of another ancestor. In a way, it is a form of time travel.

In addition, we have a very fixed view of the straight laced Victorian era, where everything was done in the proper manner. The actual reality is often very different. The amount of weddings taking place where the bride is often about nine months pregnant is surprisingly high, as are the numbers of illegitimate births. Casual sex and sex before marriage was certainly not invented in the 1960’s. This is something that family history research teaches you.

I have one forebear on my maternal line who married at 18. His wife died a few years later, probably in childbirth of from complications thereof. Almost before she was cold in the ground, he has married her sister. She in turn passes away and he marries again within a very short space of time. It was almost like a conveyor belt of marriage partners, but I am sure there must have been a practical reason for it? He was a Farm Foreman in Suffolk, maybe that was a good catch at the time for a single woman or a widow in the late 19th century? Certainly better than a life in domestic service I would imagine, which was all too common in rural areas.

Another case I discovered very recently was a female forebear of mine, born in 1798 in Northumberland. I had a marriage record for her in 1810, which I thought must be wrong. But having seen the original record from the church in which she was married, where her father was the Parish Clerk, there was little room for doubt. She was married at the age of 12.

Upon further investigation, I discovered that her husband was 10 years her senior, and that at the time of the wedding, she was six months pregnant. Given her date of birth, she became pregnant at the age of 11. She subsequently gave birth to twin boys. I was pretty shocked by all that, but what shocked me even more, was that it was legal for a 12 year old girl or 14 year old boy to wed in England, with parental consent, right up until 1929.

This is not an in-depth article. I will not go into the complexities of DNA or family history research. There is so much of that available on the internet with the click of a mouse, and many books have been written on the subject. However, this is a brief explanation of the basic science. 

DNA is made up of molecules called nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). The order of these bases is what determines DNA's instructions, or genetic code. 

I simply wanted to whet your appetite, so that you can follow your own path of discovery into the past, and discover all those who have gone before you. They all make you who you are today.

I will leave you all with this thought. If your DNA was unraveled and laid end to end, it would stretch twice around the solar system. It is little wonder then, given that fact, that although we may all be inter-related to one degree or another, we are also very different, due to the permutations provided by our extraordinary recombinant DNA.

18th September 2018.

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