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The Viking roots of northwest England

A collaborative study between the universities of Leicester and Nottingham has exploited the connection between surnames and DNA to show a remarkable degree of Viking ancestry in parts of northwest England.

Many of the place-names in the Wirral and West Lancashire, such as Toxteth, Tranmere and Formby, are of Norse origin. This reflects the presence of Norse Vikings who arrived in the region after being expelled from Dublin in 902 AD. These two regions possess the only definite English examples of the place-name Thingwall – deriving from an old Norse name meaning “Assembly Field” and indicating an established settlement with its own regular meeting-place.

Professor Stephen Harding adds: “The intensity and distribution of minor place-name elements attests to the persistence of a Scandinavian dialect through the centuries that may reflect the intensity of the original settlement”.

Viking traces in the genes of modern people from these regions however are likely to be obscured by the massive population growth, including immigration from other parts of Britain, of the last thousand years. To bypass this problem, the research teams, supported by the Wellcome Trust and the BBSRC, collected samples of men who carried surnames that were found in early local documents. One list contained the names of men who had promised to contribute to the stipend of the priest of the altar of Our Lady at Ormskirk in 1366; another recorded the names of all those households paying taxes in Wirral in the reign of Henry VIII. Surnames derived from local place-names were also included.

Genetic analysis of these men focused on the Y chromosome, which, like a surname, is passed down from father to son. Surnames provide a link to the past, so the Y chromosomes of men with old local surnames might give a genetic picture of what the population was like, closer to Viking times.

When such samples of men were compared with samples based only on the birth-place of the paternal grandfather, they were found to carry a much higher proportion of Norse ancestry. In fact, the population carries about 50% male Norse ancestry – about the same as modern Orkney, confirming the belief that the region was once heavily populated by Scandinavian settlers.

The University of Leicester’s previous work on surnames has included the finding of African lineages in Yorkshire, and showing the potential of surnames in forensic work. Professor Mark Jobling said: ‘Surnames are unique cultural labels that link modern people with the past. The method of using old surname-lists promises to allow us to travel back in time, sampling from modern populations in a way that reflects pre-industrial ones.’ The team plans further studies of the rest of Lancashire, as well as North Yorkshire and Cumbria, in the hope of mapping the genetic contributions of Vikings in more detail.

The paper has been published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution at:

Ather Mirza | alfa
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