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Study provides first genetic evidence of long-lived African presence within Britain

Research reveals African origins in the UK and US

New research has identified the first genetic evidence of Africans having lived amongst "indigenous" British people for centuries. Their descendants, living across the UK today, were unaware of their black ancestry.

The University of Leicester study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published today in the journal European Journal of Human Genetics, found that one third of men with a rare Yorkshire surname carry a rare Y chromosome type previously found only amongst people of West African origin.

The researchers, led by Professor Mark Jobling, of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, first spotted the rare Y chromosome type, known as hgA1, in one individual, Mr. X. This happened whilst PhD student Ms. Turi King was sampling a larger group in a study to explore the association between surnames and the Y chromosome, both inherited from father to son. Mr. X, a white Caucasian living in Leicester, was unaware of having any African ancestors.

"As you can imagine, we were pretty amazed to find this result in someone unaware of having any African roots," explains Professor Jobling, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. "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."

Although most of Britain's one million people who define themselves as "Black or Black British" owe their origins to immigration from the Caribbean and Africa from the mid-twentieth century onwards, in reality, there has been a long history of contact with Africa. Africans were first recorded in the north 1800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian’s Wall.

To investigate the origins of hgA1 in Britain, the team recruited and studied a further eighteen males with the same surname as Mr. X. All but one were from the UK, with paternal parents and grandparents also born in Britain. Six, including one male in the US whose ancestors had migrated from England in 1894, were found to have the hgA1 chromosome.

Further genealogical research to identify a common ancestor for all seven X-surnamed males suggests that the hgA1 Y chromosome must have entered their lineage over 250 years ago. However, it is unclear whether the male ancestor was a first generation African immigrant or a European man carrying an African Y chromosome introduced into Britain some time earlier, or even whether the hgA1 Y chromosome goes back as far as the Roman occupation.

"This study shows that what it means to be British is complicated and always has been," says Professor Jobling. "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'."

In addition, Professor Jobling believes that the research may have implications for DNA profiling in criminal investigations.

"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."

Contact

Ather Mirza - Press Office, University of Leicester

Craig Brierley - Media Officer, The Wellcome Trust

Notes for editors

"Africans in Yorkshire? The deepest-rooting clade of the Y phylogeny within an English genealogy" by King, T.E. et al.; European Journal of Human Genetics, 24 January 2007

Background: 8% of the UK's 54 million inhabitants belonging to ethnic minorities, and over one million classifying themselves as "Black or Black British" according to the 2001 census. Most owe their origins to immigration from the Caribbean and Africa beginning in the mid-20th century. However, in reality, there has been a long history of contact with Africa.

Africans were first recorded in the north 1800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian’s Wall. Some historians suggest that Vikings brought captured North Africans to Britain in the 9th century. After a hiatus of several hundred years, the influence of the Atlantic slave trade began to be felt, with the first group of West Africans being brought to Britain in 1555. African domestic servants, musicians, entertainers and slaves then became common in the Tudor period, prompting an unsuccessful attempt by Elizabeth I to expel them in 1601. By the last third of the 18th century, there were an estimated 10,000 black people in Britain, mostly concentrated in cities such as London.

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK and the second largest medical research charity in the world. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £500 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. http://www.wellcome.ac.uk

The University of Leicester is a member of the 1994 group of universities that share a commitment to research excellence, high-quality teaching and an outstanding student experience.

England's top ranked university for teaching quality and overall satisfaction among universities teaching full-time students – National Student Survey 2005 and 2006. One of just 19 UK universities to feature in the world's top 200- Shanghai Jiao Tong International Index, 2005 and 2006. Shortlisted Higher Education Institution of the Year- inaugural THES awards 2005. Students' Union of the Year award 2005.

Founded in 1921, the University of Leicester has 19 000 students from 120 countries. Teaching in 18 subject areas has been graded Excellent by the Quality Assurance Agency, including 14 successive scores; a consistent run of success matched by just one other UK university. Leicester is world renowned for the invention of DNA fingerprinting by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and houses Europe's biggest academic Space Research Centre. Ninety per cent of staff are actively engaged in high-quality research, and 13 subject areas have been awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. The university's research grant income places it among the top 20 UK research universities. The university employs over 3000 people, has a turnover of £167.5 million, covers an estate of 94 hectares and is engaged in a £300m investment programme (among the biggest of any UK university). http://www.leicester.ac.uk

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