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Genetic Evidence for African Britons

January 2007 - A new study from the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the European Journal of Human Genetics has identified the first evidence of Africans having lived among "indigenous" British people for centuries and found that their descendants were unaware of their black ancestry.

Led by Professor Mark Jobling, researchers found that one-third of men with a very unusual Yorkshire surname carry a rare Y chromosome type, known as hgA1, previously found only among people of West African origin. The first individual (known as Mr X) a white Caucasian living in Leicester, was identified when PhD student Turi King was sampling a larger group to investigate the association between surnames and the Y chromosome.

Professor Mark Jobling, a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow, commented:

"As you can imagine, we were pretty amazed to find this result in someone unaware of having any African roots. The Y chromosome is passed down from father to son, so this suggested that Mr. X must have had African ancestry somewhere down the line. Our study suggests that this must have happened some time ago."

The report explains that most of the one million people who define themselves as "Black" or "Black British" can trace their origins to Caribbean and African immigration over the last fifty years or so. However, Africans were first recorded 1800 years ago, serving as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian's Wall.

Researchers found that seven out of eighteen males with the same rare surname as Mr. X had the hgA1 chromosome. All but one was from the UK, with paternal parents and grandparents also born in Britain. One had ancestors who migrated from England to the USA in 1894. Further genealogical research to identify a common ancestor suggests that the rare Y chromosome must have entered their lineage over 250 years ago. It is uncertain whether this came from a first generation African immigrant, a European man carrying an African Y chromosome introduced some time earlier, or whether it might even date from the Roman occupation.

Professor Jobling explained:

"This study shows that what it means to be British is complicated and always has been. Human migration history is clearly very complex, particularly for an island nation such as ours, and this study further debunks the idea that there are simple and distinct populations or 'races'."

Researchers think that the finding also may have implications for DNA profiling in criminal investigations.

Professor Jobling added:

"Forensic scientists use DNA analysis to predict a person's ethnic origins, for example from hair or blood samples found at a crime scene. Whilst they are very likely to predict the correct ethnicity by using wider analysis of DNA other than the Y chromosome, finding this remarkable African chromosome would certainly have them scratching their heads for a while."

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