How I found my mother country

Something exotic would have been nice. An Indian princess, perhaps? But as Stephen Biscoe reports, when his maternal ancestry was investigated, it turned out that the lady he has to thank was probably living in a Basque cave.

DIGGING in the past and finding your roots is a major obsession among the British, and now – for a sizeable fee – science can help trace a single branch of your ancestry to its place in the world around 10,000 years ago.

The stuff which makes this possible is Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which can be collected on a swab from inside your cheek.

The genetic code it contains is passed down unchanged from mother to child for many generations until a natural mutation occurs – about every 20,000 years. This means that we each share exactly the same mtDNA as our brothers and sisters and our mothers, maternal grandmothers, maternal great-grandmothers and so on all the way back to the Stone Age and beyond.

As seen in the BBC2 documentary, Motherland, A Genetic Journey, mtDNA can also shed light on the geographic origins of people who have experienced displacement in much more recent history, such as black Britons wanting to retrace roots in Africa.

Dr Peter Forster, a Cambridge geneticist featured in Motherland, explains: "Through analysis of our mitochondrial DNA, we now have a window on the past, a way of looking at our deep-time history."

Indeed, it appears from our mtDNA that every human alive today shares the same maternal grandmother, known as "Mitochondrial Eve", who lived about 130,000 years ago, probably in Eastern or Southern Africa, and in a community of hominids which was anatomically the same as us. Her descendants, geneticists argue, have gradually populated the entire globe, leaving natural mutations in the mtDNA at regular intervals wherever they went. Between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, they moved into north Africa, the Middle East, India, and to Papua New Guinea where they founded genetic groups, or haplogroups which today dominate those areas.

Tribes split off, and as they spread across east Asia, Europe and into north-west Africa and the Americas, they founded new genetic groups, two of which settled in south-west France and northern Spain; they have been labelled H and V, and analysis of my mtDNA shows that I belong to haplogroup V, whose ancestor settled in the Basque country.

Forster says that when the last Ice Age was coming to an end, about 10,000 years ago, members of this haplogroup, along with several others, migrated into central and northern Europe, following the retreating ice sheet.

So, my maternal ancestors tracked across Europe, leaving daughters as they went, and ended up in modern times in Bournemouth where my grandmother spent many years of her life. But her mother is buried in Canada, having emigrated there in the early years of her marriage.

The children, children's children, children's children's children, and so on of my maternal ancestors have scattered like seeds blown from a dandelion clock, and tracing some of them them is now possible thanks to the mtDNA database which has been painstakingly built up by Peter Forster since he was a student in Hamburg in 1991. He says of it: "It has grown up with me." And it has grown to be the largest of its sort in existence.

Much of the information which goes into it comes from forensic studies and specialist publications, and the database grows as more and more samples are collected and analysed, often by police investigating crimes. There is a small German village, for instance, where police investigating a rape and murder took mtDNA samples from every adult male, with the result that all 200 now figure in the database.

The sampling, Forster admits, is by no means evenly spread across Europe; it is relatively good in Finland and Norway, with 300 each, while in the UK and Ireland it stands at 1,719.

Will it ever be comprehensive?

"Genetic finger-printing of every baby born is still science fiction because of the cost," Forster says. But he thinks that drug companies may eventually finance such a huge project because it will alert the health-care authorities to a person's likelihood of developing allergies and specific illnesses, and will tell doctors what drugs will provide the best treatments. There is, of course, a downside to that: people shown to be high-risk may find themselves discriminated against, by insurance companies, for example.

Forster's own background is broadly scientific: after studying chemistry at Kiel and Hamburg universities, he specialised in genetics at the Heinrich-Pette-Institute of Virology and Immunology, in Hamburg, getting a PhD in biology 1997. Two years later, he came to the UK when he was appointed research fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archeological Research, in Cambridge.

The mtDNA database is now run by his brother, Michael, and the company which is licensed to use it, and which analysed my mtDNA, was set up in the UK and Germany last December by Gavin Heys, an enthusiast whose interest in geographic roots was fired when his Colombian wife, Diana, gave birth to their first child.

Using DNA sequencing, the sample I provided was laboratory-analysed to determine its mtDNA code which was then matched against the database to discover where in the world there are individuals who share my motherline – in other words, who are my distant cousins. The company, Roots For Real, produces a map with blobs on it showing where matches have been found – in my case, exact matches – and a list identifying all the locations.

Looking down it, I see that apart from relatives in England, I have more or less distant ones in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, northern Spain (Basque country), central and northern Portugal, Italy, Greece, Morocco (a Tachelhit speaker of the Berber tribe), northern Algeria and Syria.

It took me a while to realise that my maternal ancestors have not lived in all these places; merely that their descendants have ended up in them, just as I am now in Yorkshire, my sister is on Vancouver Island, Canada, and my brother is in Stockholm, Sweden.

Because in Western Christian cultures we inherit our father's surnames, we are perhaps more aware of our paternal ancestors, but the Y chromosomes which they pass on – and which do not mutate – are found only in their male off-spring.

stephen.biscoe@ypn.co.uk

The Roots for Real service is available for 195 from www.rootsforreal.com or call 0845 450 0180. The results of the test take approximately five weeks and will apply to sisters, brothers, mothers and any other relatives sharing a pure motherline connection with the customer being tested.