Yorkshire is different. More than an instinct, a boast from the terracing, or even a more measured cultural observation, Yorkshire is very definitely different. It’s official. DNA ancestry testing has proved it.
Since the Yorkshire’s DNA project began five weeks ago in partnership with the Yorkshire Post, we have tested more than 200 people. Preliminary results for 140 are about to be sent out and they show something remarkable and unambiguous. Yorkshire’s ancestral makeup is markedly different from the rest of Britain.
By far the largest Y chromosome lineage, what men pass on down the generations to their sons, is labelled R1b-S145 by geneticists. We have named it Pretani, the earliest recorded name for the British.
Across Britain, the Pretani is the dominant lineage present in just under a third of males. In Yorkshire it is not. In fact, it’s present in only 16 per cent of those tested so far. What this means is something fascinating, nothing less than an alternative history.
During the last ice age, Britain was a pitiless landscape, a place where nothing could live. When the ice melted and the weather began to warm around 9,600BC, those who had sheltered from the bitter winds and freezing temperatures for hundreds of generations left the sanctuary of ice age refuges in northern Spain and south west France and began to move north, probably in pursuit of migrating herds of reindeer.
The journey was so rapid that the cave painters’ habit of making figurative art soon arrived on the southern borders of Yorkshire. At Cresswell Crags, not far from Sheffield, archaeologists have found engravings of the outlines of animals on the rock walls.
The Pretani migrated north over many millennia, but while Celtic kings ruled in Elmet, the western Dales and in the Pennines as late as the 7th-century, their genetic legacy is not as strong as elsewhere in Britain.
Instead Yorkshire is dominated by the ancestry that has it roots across the North Sea. Groups we have called Germanic, Teutonic, Saxon, Alpine, Scandinavian and Norse Viking make up 52 per cent of Yorkshire’s Y chromosome, compared to 28 per cent across the whole of the rest of Britain.
Geology and politics can supply some answers to Yorkshire’s unique make-up. For about 4,000 years following the end of the last ice age, migrants could walk to Britain. Many who carried what are called Germanic, Teutonic, Saxon, Alpine and Scandinavian markers travelled to Yorkshire across a vast, low-lying, densely wooded landmass before the crust of the Earth eventually corrected and Doggerland finally sank beneath the waves around 4,000BC.
Later in the 5th-century AD, Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and other Germanic peoples beached their boats on the shores of the decaying Roman province of Britannia. And still they came. Between the 9th and 11th-centuries, the kingdom of York became a political centre of the Danelaw, the eastern half of England that stretched in a diagonal from London to Chester, where so many settled that a separate set of laws and customs were installed in place of native English equivalents.
Over an immense span of time, many men from north-western Europe and southern Scandinavia settled in the hills and dales and now their Y chromosome lineages dominate.
But they do not tell the whole story. Yorkshire is also tremendously diverse. So far Yorkshire’s DNA has discovered 23 male lineages and some are very rare. One man carries a marker called Thracian that came from the shores of the Black Sea and another can trace his ancestors back to the Ural Mountains.
These results ask more questions than they answer, and the story of Yorkshire’s women appears to be equally fascinating. In Last of the Summer Wine, Clegg, Compo and Foggy lived in abject terror of women, Yorkshire women in particular and it turns out that the caricature might not be too wide of the mark.
The women of Yorkshire could claim that they do own the place. They have squatters’ rights – because most of them have been here for much longer than the men.
Women pass on mitochondrial DNA to their children but only their daughters can, in turn, pass it to their children. Men have it but it dies with them. What that means is that everyone so far tested in the Yorkshire’s DNA project has mtDNA and it can tell us a great deal about ancient ancestry.
A staggering 62 per cent of mtDNA lineages began to arrive in Yorkshire very early, as soon as the last ice age ended, some time around 9,600BC. And it seems that they came from the same direction, from the Iberian Peninsula and south-western France.
On either side of the Pyrenees were a series of natural caves, many of them occurring in steep-sided limestone gorges and they were the places where our species, in very small communities, overwintered the storms and plummeting temperatures of the ice age.
Many were close to the spring and autumn migration routes of herds of reindeer, wild horses and other prey animals. And where the way was narrow or the thundering herds needed to cross a river, the ancestors of most of Yorkshire’s women waited for the kill. One of the most famous prehistoric sites in Britain is at Starr Carr, not far from Scarborough, where the women of the ice age refuges probably fished in the now disappeared lake and made spear-points from antlers as they sat in the evening sun talking, telling stories, exchanging opinions and wondering about the future.
What is striking is the chronological gap between the arrivals of the male and female ancestors of the bulk of Yorkshire’s people. While many of the mtDNA lineages began to settle early, most of the dominant male lineages came later.
The overwhelmingly Germanic and Scandinavian origins of Yorkshire’s men probably means that they arrived after approximately 3,000BC, while many of the ancestors of women had been here for some time before that. But how did that happen? What became of the male partners of those original female pioneers? The answer lies in the soil.
The centuries either side of 3,000BC were a watershed in British history, a time of unprecedented change. From across the North Sea came new people and a revolutionary idea. Farming and its techniques changed utterly the way lives were lived because it altered food production radically.
Instead of depending entirely on a wild harvest of fruits, roots and berries or trapping birds and animals, communities began to plant crops and domesticate animals. This tied people to the land, fostered a new sense of ownership – and thanks to the invention of porridge caused the population to explode.
In the previous hunter-gatherer societies, infants were almost certainly breast fed for as long as four or five years. During that time mothers will have been unable to conceive. And since prehistoric people died younger, the hunter-gatherer population grew very slowly.
However, when the new farming communities began to mash cereals into a nourishing paste with water or the milk of goats, ewes or cows, this early baby food meant women breast fed for a much shorter period of time and could conceive for much longer.
As farming crossed the North Sea in the centuries around 3,000BC and men arrived with bags of seed corn and domesticated animals, they began to clear the land, lay out small fields and pens, and change the landscape utterly.
And because these farming communities grew very fast, the Y chromosome DNA of the first farmers, the men from northern Europe, also multiplied very fast and widely. Many will have taken native partners whose mtDNA survived to show up in the modern population.
It is this revolution in human society and the speed with which it spread that explains the dichotomy between Yorkshire’s male and female DNA markers.
However, our early testing has also shown that not all Yorkshire’s women got their hands dirty tilling the soil and milking the animals.
Two Yorkshire women (and there will be more) have so far been found to have Sheban DNA. The land of the Queen of Sheba lay on either side of the Red Sea and if the gold and other luxuries that she brought to the court of King Solomon are to be believed, it was a rich and fertile realm. Norah Batty and her battleship friends may not look as though the blood of the Queen of Sheba courses through their veins – but it just might.
As Yorkshire’s DNA continues to test, we will discover more and more about a place people thought they knew well.
A hidden history will come to light, one that might be the stuff of legend – or nightmares – for Clegg, Compo and Foggy.
Lecture on DNA project
Yorkshire’s DNA launched in September with the aim of shining the light on the county’s past.
Advances in technology mean it is now possible to trace an individual’s DNA right back through history and the team at Yorkshire’s DNA are already in the process of testing hundreds of samples.
Those who are interested in having their DNA analysed by the team of experts can visit www.yorkshiresdna.com, for a full explanation of the testing process.
To mark the launch of Yorkshire’s DNA, Dr Jim Wilson of the University of Edinburgh, a leading authority on genetic ancestry testing will be giving an illustrated lecture on the project at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on November 1.
The event, which will also include a look at the initial results, starts at 7pm and for tickets call the box office on 0113 213 7700 or book online at www.wyp.org.uk.