Dec 29, 2008 - Ancestry

What’s in a Name: Surnames and the Y-Chromosome

My surname – Holden – has gone through many incarnations since it originated in England nearly 700 years ago.   Letters were added, then dropped.   Some branches of my family added an extra “u” in the middle, while others changed the pronunciation entirely.   Then, when my ancestors arrived in America over 200 years ago, the name went through a whole new set of changes.   It seems my surname has been in a constant state of change since its inception.

But the story of my surname is not unique.   Millions of Americans have similar stories about ancestors who, upon arriving in the New World, actively changed their names to sound more “American.” German immigrants named Blum became Bloom, Küsters became Custers, and Kÿfers became Coopers. Immigrants from Italy, Sweden, France, and countless other countries underwent similar transformations.   After just a few generations, the original spelling or pronunciation was lost.

Just as our surnames have changed over the centuries, little by little, so too has our DNA.   In fact, some regions of the human genome acquire mutations in such a way that researchers can trace the changes back through time — much like tracing a surname back for generations in a family tree.   And one region in particular, the Y-chromosome, happens to be passed down from father to son, the same way surnames are inherited in Western culture. That provides a wealth of opportunities for scientists from a variety of disciplines to use the Y-chromosome to unlock history’s secrets, unravel family trees, and even solve crimes.

The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings

The histories of Scandinavia and the British Isles have been entwined since Vikings from Norway and Denmark landed on the eastern coast of England in the year 792.   Successful raiding parties eventually led to settlements along the eastern half of England.   Today there are remnants of Viking settlements in this region in the form of place names, unique vocabulary, and even surnames.   Last year, British geneticists took surname information from an area formerly settled by Vikings to see if men living there today who had Scandinavian surnames also had evidence of Scandinavian (aka Viking) genetic ancestry.   They analyzed the Y-chromosomes of several hundred men, and, not surprisingly, found that those with Scandinavian surnames did indeed have Scandinavian DNA, at least on the Y-chromosome.   Similar studies of Irish men have also found a modest connection between surnames and Y-chromosome types.

Surname DNA Projects

As we reported several weeks ago, the field of genealogy has been invigorated by the increasing use of genetic testing to fill in the missing branches of a person’s family tree.   Genealogists are now comparing their Y-chromosomes to those of others with the same surname, to see if a shared surname is also an indication of the shared ancestry.   Within the past few years, surname DNA projects have sprung up all across the world – with hundreds of genetic genealogists digging deep into their genes as they piece together their detailed family trees.

Surnames and Forensics

By far one of the most interesting applications for surname and Y-chromosome comparison is in the field of forensic science.   In 2006, British geneticists found that — for some of the more rare surnames such as Maloy or Rivis, there was a strong connection between surname and Y-chromosome haplogroup.   The authors reasoned that, if DNA were to be recovered from a crime scene, forensic investigators might be able to narrow down the possible perpetrators to a specific subset of surnames.

However, there are several limitations to this idea — namely the fact that most men in the UK have rather common surnames, such as Smith, Green, and Adams.   Men with these surnames have a wide range of Y-chromosome DNA types, so it would nearly impossible for investigators to use the Y-chromosome to locate a suspect.   However, on principle this idea has merit, and further advances along these lines may someday allow investigators to exploit the DNA-surname connection.

One final note: 23andMe customers need not worry that their data will be used in this way – our research database does not include surnames and our terms of service do not allow us to share data with law enforcement unless we are legally compelled to. And even if such a situation did arise, we have publicly committed to resisting legal requests for customer data.

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