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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

Programme 1: There's only one Mr Sykes Audio

Bryan Sykes Professor Bryan Sykes returns to his roots

There are some very obvious methods of tracing your family tree. You have only to look at telephone directories to see that most people named Sykes live in Yorkshire or the neighbouring counties of Lancashire and Cheshire. Once you start looking for the name further back in time you find it in fewer places. In the Middle Ages, when surnames began, there were Sykeses in different parts of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire and historians were reluctant therefore to accept the idea that the surname might have a single origin. As the name is taken from a feature of the landscape - a medieval drainage ditch in an open field system - it seemed that Sykes could have arisen independently in different places. There the matter rested until a geneticist applied his own special techniques to the problem.

DNA tests pioneered by Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, have now offered strong support to the idea that his own family name had a single-family origin. A cheek cell sample is sufficient to provide information about the Y chromosome that each man inherits from his male ancestors. Of such samples sent to Bryan Sykes, around half of fifty male Sykeses had exactly the same Y chromosome, evidence suggesting that they came from a common ancestor. The Y chromosome patterns among the other half resembled those of the general population, and this was taken to mean that they had been introduced to the Sykes family by adoption, by assuming the name or by illegitimacy - the three causes being linked together as 'non-paternity events'.

This points strongly to one original Mr Sykes, but there are experts who put forward other theories. There may, for example, have been several founders, with one line being much more prolific than all the others. These less prolific lines, who simply had fewer sons, would be indistinguishable from non-paternity events.

Even if these lines do exist, the fact remains that the majority of present-day Sykeses can trace their origins back to a family living in Slaithwaite, just outside Huddersfield, in the fifteenth century, or, Bryan Sykes contends, further back to 1280 when William del Sykes held land nine miles east in Flockton. All this was a result of an inquisitive experiment Bryan Sykes carried out to find out whether or not he was related to Sir Richard Sykes, Chairman of pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline. The tests proved that he is! There are far-reaching consequences of his success. And the intriguing question which followed was whether this type of DNA analysis could shed as much light on the origins of surnames other than Sykes.

On location at Flockton
Presenter George Redmonds, Professor Bryan Sykes and producer Sandra Sykes at Flockton: behind them are the modern village and the open field system where William del Sykes farmed back in the 1280s

There have been hereditary surnames since the Norman Conquest, and the process became widespread in the two or three centuries that followed. However, when the Black Death killed over forty per cent of the population, in 1348-50, many of these newly-formed surnames were destroyed. It is those which survived which are important. As the population recovered, in Tudor and Stuart times, names such as Sykes became much more common and also began to spread in their surrounding neighbourhoods. Maps showing the distribution of a surname at various times in the past are a useful guide to the original home of a family name. Unfortunately we still cannot pinpoint where the original Mr Sykes lived because most medieval drainage ditches have now disappeared, but there is renewed interest in DNA-testing other Sykeses from Wharfedale or Cumbria who may be from the less prolific lines.

Programme 2: Mapping your surname >>

Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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See: Sykes Surname Origins for followup references.