Our surnames and genetic information are often strongly connected, according to the authors of a new study in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Interestingly, the new findings directly challenge the often quoted one-in-ten figure for children born through infidelity.
To conduct their study, University of Leicester researchers Turi King and Mark Jobling examined the Y chromosomes of over 1,600 unrelated men with forty surnames (including variations in spelling). Sons inherit both the Y chromosome and – generally – the surname from their fathers, unlike daughters, who do not carry this sex-specific chromosome and usually change their surname through marriage.
The practice of using hereditary surnames filtered down from Norman noble families to all classes of society so that by the fourteenth century people in many classes had surnames and by the sixteenth century it was rare not to have one. King and Jobling found that men with rare surnames – such as Grewcock, Wadsworth, Ketley and Ravenscroft – tended to share Y chromosomes that were very similar, suggesting a common ancestor within the past 700 years. However, men with common surnames, such as Smith, were no more likely to have such a common ancestor than men chosen at random from the general population.
“Surnames such as Smith come from a person’s trade and would have been adopted many times by unrelated people,” explained King. “Less common names, such as Swindlehurst, were more geographically-specific and possibly adopted by only one or two men, so we would expect people with these surnames to be more closely related.”
One of the most familiar of the rarer names in the study was Attenborough. A random sample of Attenboroughs (including derivations such as Attenborrow) found that almost nine out of ten of these men share the same Y chromosome type. “Attenboroughs essentially form one big family of distant relatives,” said King. “The Y chromosome type was the same even across spelling variants, which confirms that the spellings of names were formalised only relatively recently.”
“People often quote a figure of one-in-ten for the number of people born illegitimately,” says Jobling. “Our study shows that this is likely to be an exaggeration. The real figure is more likely to be less that one in twenty-five.” The new study follows on from a previous study that showed that it may be possible to apply the research to forensic science, extrapolating from a DNA sample to identify likely surnames of suspects (see related links below).
DNA surname profiling mooted in UK