Friday, 25 July 2014

My letter in Family Tree Magazine about "genetic homeland" stories

The August 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine includes a letter I wrote in response to two stories in their July issue which claimed that it is possible to identify someone's "genetic homeland" from a DNA test. There was not space in the magazine to include the full text of my letter and the editor has kindly given me permission to reproduce the full letter here.
In your July issue you published two articles which claimed to show that it is possible to pinpoint your "genetic homeland" a thousand or more years ago by taking a simple DNA test. It would indeed be wonderful if a DNA test could give us this information but sadly it is not possible. 
The first story “DNA: find your ancestral home” (p9) referred to a new autosomal DNA test developed by a company called Prosapia Genetics. They claim that they are able to pinpoint someone’s genetic homeland one thousand years ago and that their test is “accurate to home village with a time resolution of the past 1,000 years”. The underlying research on which this test is based was published in a scientific journal (Elhaik et el 2014, Nature Communications 5: 3513). However, the researchers were only able to place 50% of people within 450 kilometres of their country of origin, which is hardly the level of precision claimed. Furthermore the research focused solely on the present-day country of origin and made no attempt to determine an ancestral origin one thousand years ago. Such a method is best thought of as human provenancing – finding the location where an individual’s genotype is most likely to be found – not a method for inferring ancestry. Indeed, if you go back one thousand years you have in theory about 35 billion ancestors, although you actually inherited DNA from only a small, random subset of those ancestors. Identifying a single location as the “genetic homeland” of either all your pedigree ancestors or just the DNA ancestors would be a meaningless exercise. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy received a number of reports from dissatisfied customers of Prosapia Genetics, many of whom had received bizarre results placing their "genetic homeland" in the middle of a river or ocean. Fortunately they were able to get refunds from PayPal. 
Dr Tyrone Bowes, the author of the second article "Routes to roots" (pp14-18), claims to be able to tell his customers when their ancestors arrived in Britain and where they came from based on recurring surname matches received as part of a commercial Y-chromosome DNA test. DNA testing is a very useful tool for the genealogist, and Y-DNA matches can often provide clues about our recent origins. However, Y-DNA results should always be interpreted in combination with genealogical and historical records. While a Y-DNA test is very good at indicating whether or not two people share a recent male-line ancestor, it is much more difficult to determine precisely when or where that ancestor might have lived. For example, a match on 34 out of 37 markers could indicate a shared ancestor who lived 200 years ago or 2000 years ago, and there is no way of determining the precise timeframe. Furthermore, surnames did not become common in Britain one thousand years ago, as is claimed. They were introduced into Britain with the Norman Conquest but the adoption of surnames was a gradual process. While most English people had acquired surnames by the fifteenth century, surnames were not adopted until the nineteenth century in some parts of Wales. In the Highlands of Scotland the clan system survived until the eighteenth century, and people adopted the name of the clan rather than using an hereditary surname. Even when surnames are passed on through the fatherline the link between the Y-chromosome and the surname is often broken as a result of illegitimacy, cuckoldry, adoption or name changes. In addition, there is an inherent American bias in the commercial databases. Consequently Y-DNA matches will often tell us more about non-paternity events in Colonial America in the last 400 years, rather than a person’s origins in the British Isles. All these factors need to be taken into account when interpreting DNA results. 
The mutations that determine haplogroups (the deep-rooted branches of the human Y-DNA tree) did indeed occur at a specific time and place several thousand years ago, but determining when and where that happened is a different matter entirely. We are reliant on making inferences from the DNA of living people. However, the current distribution of haplogroups differs from each of the distributions at different times in the past. The changes occur due to migration and the randomness of genetic drift. As more ancient DNA samples become available it might one day be possible to provide some answers, but we are not there yet and it is unlikely that we will ever be able to "precisely reconstruct our ancestral journey". 
Readers wishing to understand more about the legitimate uses of DNA testing for genealogy and the limited inferences that can be made from deep ancestry tests might like to refer to the new “Debunking genetic astrology” website that I have worked on with my colleagues at University College London: In particular readers might like to look at the page on dubious commercial claims ( where the genetic homeland stories are discussed in greater detail.
The editor also included in the August issue of Family Tree Magazine responses to my letter from Vladimir Makarov of Prosapia Genetics and Tyrone Bowes, the creator of the Irish, Scottish and English Origenes websites. Unfortunately, neither letter addressed any of the issues I'd raised. Vladimir Makarov argued that his reports do reflect ancient origins simply because the reference populations he uses are "totally agnostic of political boundaries". He failed to recognise that these reference populations are themselves possibly admixed and do not necessarily represent the population in the same location one thousand years ago. Tyrone Bowes went into great detail about a case report that he'd compiled for a Mr Valentine which purported to show a link with the McGregors. It seems that his entire dating method has been based on this single case. Numerous scientific studies have of course demonstrated that mutations occur at random, and any attempt to investigate the validity of matches must take into account the uncertainties in the TMRCA (time to the most recent common ancestor) calculations. My points about differing times of surname adoption and non-paternity events remained unanswered.

For further information about Prosapia Genetics and the case reports offered by the Irish, Scottish and English Origenes websites see my two earlier blog posts:

- Driving in the wrong direction with a dodgy DNA satnav (a critique of the test from Prosapia Genetics)
- A look at the genetic homeland case reports from English Origenes, Irish Origenes and Scottish Origenes

© 2014 Debbie Kennett

Understanding genetic ancestry testing and debunking genetic astrology

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new UCL website devoted to the subject of genetic ancestry testing. I've been working on this website with my UCL colleagues Professor David Balding, Professor Mark Thomas and Adrian Timpson.

The aim of the website is to explain how genetic ancestry tests work and to explain what such tests can and can't tell you, but with a particular focus on the inferences made about our deep ancestry. I am a passionate advocate for the use of DNA testing for genealogical purposes. DNA can be a very powerful tool when used in combination with both genealogical and historical records, especially now that the genetic genealogy databases are so large. However, it is much more difficult to make inferences about deep ancestry based on DNA evidence alone. Unfortunately many misleading stories and dubious claims which are not supported by the scientific evidence have appeared in the media. Such "genetic astrology" stories only serve to undermine public confidence in DNA testing and prevent the subject from being taken seriously. It is often difficult for the uninformed reader to make sense of these stories and to separate the facts from the storytelling. We hope that our website will go some way to setting the record straight.

The new website is an extension of our previous website which was devoted to the BritainsDNA saga. BritainsDNA are not by any means the only source of exaggerated claims appearing in the media, though to our knowledge they are the only company who have resorted to legal threats in an attempt to silence their critics. The BritainsDNA saga still features prominently but we have now added additional sections to the website looking at dubious claims from other commercial organisations, and deconstructing some of the doubtful research claims that have appeared on TV or in the press. We also have a section devoted to some of the more problematic theories about our genetic ancestry that are circulated over the internet, in the press, and across social media platforms. The new website can be found here:

The website is inevitably a work in progress, and will evolve over time. We would welcome any feedback and in particular suggestions for further topics which should be covered.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Red hair and climate change

A number of newspapers this week, including The Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post, reported on a ludicrous story suggesting that the gene associated with red hair could die out as a result of climate change. The source of this story appears to be an interview with "DNA expert... Dr Alistair Moffat, boss of genetic testing company ScotlandsDNA" published in the Scottish Daily Record. I have not been able to find any evidence that Alistair Moffat has a PhD in any subject and he does not seem to have any qualifications in genetics so it is somewhat surprising to find that he is described both as a doctor and as a DNA expert. Most unusually the story was supported by a quote from "another scientist, who asked not to be named because of the theoretical nature of the work". I do not ever recall seeing any story in the press before where a scientist insisted on retaining his or her anonymity, though it is perhaps understandable in view of the nonsensical nature of the theory.

ScotlandsDNA have since claimed that Alistair Moffat was misquoted, though they have not enlightened us as to what exactly Alistair Moffat is supposed to have said.

The science writer Adam Rutherford has written an excellent article for The Guardian, Relax, redheads. You're not about to die out, exposing the bad science behind the red hair and climate change theory. As a side note, I get a brief mention at the end of the article for my blog post debunking the story of  Prince William's "Indian" DNA. The Prince William story emanated from a press release from ScotlandsDNA's sister company BritainsDNA and, as with the red hair story, was picked up unquestioningly by a gullible press.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Who Do You Think You Are Live? 2015 goes to Birmingham

There has been a lot of speculation about the date and venue for Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2015. I've now received official confirmation in the form of a press release from Immediate Media that the event will indeed be held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, and the show will change dates and will now take place from 16th to 18th April. Here is the official press release:


Immediate Media Co, the special interest content and platform company, announces that Who Do You Think You Are? Live, the world’s largest family history event, is to relocate to the Birmingham NEC next year.

Moving from Olympia, London, where the event has been running for eight successful years, the show will also change dates and will now be held from 16-18 April 2015.

Sponsored by, Who Do You Think You Are? Live helps genealogy enthusiasts of all levels to uncover their roots, bringing together informative workshops, experts from the major subscription sites, museums, archives, specialist exhibitors and the largest gathering of family history societies.

Andy Healy, Show Director, commented: “We are delighted to be bringing Who Do You Think You Are? Live to this world-class venue. This move will allow us to take advantage of the NEC’s excellent facilities and transport links and will help us to add real value to the show, opening it up to exhibitors and visitors across the whole country, giving more people than ever the chance to unravel their family history.

David Gallagher, the NEC’s New Business Development Manager, added: “The NEC is a natural home for a show of this scale and we consistently deliver the right audience for the right show. Our location, as well as the venue’s size and flexibility, will be key to delivering the audience the organisers are after, and our Research & CRM team backed this up with their research findings which told us that over six million people fitting their specific visitor profile were situated within just two hours’ drive time of the NEC.”

Who Do You Think You Are? Live is based on the popular television programme, produced by Wall To Wall (a Warner Bros. Television Productions UK company), which will celebrate its 100th episode later this year. To date, the series has seen celebrities including Marianne Faithfull, Patrick Stewart, Nigella Lawson, J.K. Rowling and Sebastian Coe trace their family trees to discover the secrets and surprises from their past.

Immediate owns a majority share in Who Do You Think You Are? Live and has managed the show since November 2010. The 2014 event ran from 20-22 February, attracting around 14,000 visitors. It was announced in February that Who Do You Think You Are? Live is to launch in Glasgow at the SECC from 29-31 August 2014 as part of the Homecoming Scotland celebrations, marking the first time the event has been held outside of London.

About Who Do You Think You Are? Live:
Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2015, sponsored by, is taking place at the Birmingham NEC from 16-18 April 2015. Immediate Media Co owns a majority share in Who Do You Think You Are? Live and manages the live event.

About Immediate Media Co:
Immediate Media Co, the specialist interest content and platform company, creates compelling content on platforms that enhances the way people engage with what they love. With an exciting mix of market-leading brands, great talent and technology expertise, Immediate, one of the biggest consumer media businesses in the UK and the third largest magazine publisher, combines its reputation for editorial quality with an integrated approach to delivering multi-platform content.

Its wholly owned brands include Radio Times, olive, Homes & Antiques and highly successfully digital brands including, and It publishes BBC Top Gear, BBC Good Food, and BBC EasyCook on behalf of BBC Worldwide as well as BBC History, BBC Gardeners’ World, BBC Focus and the CBeebies portfolio, under licence. It publishes Lonely Planet Traveller magazine for LPG Inc.

With 850 staff in London and Bristol, Immediate has over 1 million subscribers, a brand reach of over 25 million UK consumers and revenues of £150m per annum. It is owned by Exponent Private Equity.

Follow us on Twitter @Immediate_Media

About the NEC:
The NEC - where brands are born, products are launched and networks are made - occupies a 610 acre site in the borough of Solihull (just eight miles from Birmingham City Centre) and welcomes around 2.1 million visitors each year to over 500 events.

The UK’s number one venue offers unrivalled connectivity and flexibility with more than 186,000 square metres of covered exhibition space through 34 conference suites and 20 interconnecting halls, in addition to over 160 acres of hard standing ground and 75 acres of woodland. 

Situated at the heart of the national motorway network and physically linked to both Birmingham Airport and Birmingham International Railway Station, 75% of the UK’s population are based within a three-hour drive time of the NEC and the venue has over 16,500 car parking spaces for visitors.The proposed HS2 Birmingham Interchange, fully supported by the NEC Group, will create greater ease of access to the area (38 minute journey time between London and Birmingham) and will put in place the essential infrastructure necessary to do business effectively across the UK, Europe and beyond, while the new runway extension at Birmingham Airport - which offers 150 direct destinations and 400 one-stop connections - gives airlines the potential to offer passengers from the Midlands non-stop flights to the west coast of the USA, South Africa, the Far East and South America.

And, as the NEC site’s ‘Destination NEC’ master plan continues to progress, work is now underway on the UK’s first integrated destination leisure and entertainment complex, Resorts World Birmingham, which is due to open in Spring 2015 with the creation of 1100 new jobs, making the NEC site a 24/7 visitor destination.

Visit the NEC online: and find out what’s on at You also follow the NEC on Twitter and LinkedIn and ‘like’ the venue on Facebook.

About contains more than one billion records in collections including the most comprehensive online set of England, Wales and Scotland Censuses from 1841 to 1911, the fully searchable England and Wales Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, the World War One British Army Service and Pension records, UK Parish Records and the British Phone Books. is the world's largest online family history resource with approximately 2.7 million paying subscribers across all its websites. More than 14 billion records have been added to the sites and users have created more than 60 million family trees containing more than 6 billion profiles.

In addition to its flagship site, the company operates several global Ancestry international websites along with a suite of online family history brands, including,,, and offers the AncestryDNA product, sold by its subsidiary, DNA, LLC, all of which are designed to empower people to discover, preserve and share their family history.

For further stories and updates related to family history research, you can also follow on Facebook and Twitter.

About Wall to Wall:
Wall to Wall is one of the UK's leading production companies. For over 20 years the Warner Bros. Television Productions UK-owned indie has been supplying broadcasters around the world with ground-breaking, award-winning high quality television content across many genres.

Productions range from the entertainment phenomenon and ratings winner The Voice UK to Oscar-winning feature documentary Man On Wire, BBC One hit drama New Tricks, the internationally acclaimed genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?, the highly rated ITV factual format Long Lost Family, the innovative living history “House” franchise (which included1900 House1940 HouseEdwardian Country House) to single dramas - Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, the multi-award winning A Very English Marriage and multi Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy nominated The Girl.

Wall to Wall’s productions have won almost every major international television award and it regularly tops UK trade magazine polls as the company rated most highly by its peers; subsequently attracting the top talent from across the industry.

Wall to Wall is part of Warner Bros. Television Productions UK. All Wall to Wall’s programme and format sales are handled by Warner Bros. International Television Production.