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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy


The idea that many of our English surnames could have a single origin may seem unlikely, but it is not new. It was implicit in The Homes of Family Names (1890) by H. B. Guppy, and raised as a possibility by Sir Anthony Wagner in English Genealogy (1960). Surname specialist George Redmonds, the presenter of the series, had been mulling over this idea in the 1960s, and in his book Yorkshire West Riding (1973) he argued that many of the distinctive names of the West Riding - names such as Ackroyd, Barraclough, Gledhill and Murgatroyd - each started with just one man in the Middle Ages. By tracing a family tree and by mapping the places in which surnames were found at different times in the past he was able to show where a name began six or seven hundred years ago. But the surviving records from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries - the time when many surnames became hereditary - were rarely detailed enough to prove his theory with certainty. Now a new approach using DNA tests, pioneered by Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, is making great strides in finding the origins of surnames and is adding powerful support to the theory that very many surnames throughout the land did indeed start with just one family.

This series looks at the ways in which historians, linguists and geneticists are pooling their knowledge to investigate how surnames began, to see how they spread and to find out how they sometimes changed over time. These specialists are joined by professional genealogists and amateur family historians who tell some remarkable stories and show that tracing a family name can be enjoyable and not just hard work.

Programme 1: There's only one Mr Sykes >>

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Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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