Great Great Great Great (x 250) Grandad

Reconstruction_KennisWith a recent surge of interest in genealogy, family trees have been sprouting up left, right and centre. In this ‘who do you think you are’ era, there can be few projects more satisfying than revealing your own personal connections with great-great-great grandparents in long lost worlds. But as DNA testing on the ‘King in the Car Park’ has shown, new scientific techniques mean that the roots of some people’s family trees have been growing deeper and deeper – stretching back not just hundreds of years, but millennia.

Recent DNA samples from Otzi the Ice Man (a 5,300 year old naturally preserved mummy discovered in the Italian Alps) have linked his lineage directly to living relatives in what has to be one of the oldest family trees in the forest.

Initially presumed to be the victim of a mountaineering accident, Otzi was discovered in 1991 in South Tyrol by two hikers. Although his body was well preserved by the ice and snow, the original ‘excavation’ was less than scientific, so he has been subject to various CSI ‘cold-case’ analysis ever since.  A flint arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder hints at his probable cause of death. Although missing any vital organs, the arrow severed a major blood vessel leading to extensive bleeding and perhaps paralysis of the left arm.

y_chromosomeTo undertake the DNA study in the search for Otzi’s descendants, scientists focussing on a rare mutation of the Y-chromosome called G-L91 screened about 3,700 Austrian blood donors. This chromosome can only be used to trace male descendants, and is a reliable indication of ancestral relations. Results of the test have shown that 19 living male relatives of Otzi are currently living nearby in the Tyrolean region, although these men have not presently been informed about the identity of their great-great-great (X 250!) great-grandfather.

But this is not the first time such ancient DNA has been traced to modern relations. In 1997 the DNA of 9,000 year old ‘Cheddar Man’, who was discovered in Gough’s Cave located in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, was linked to modern inhabitants of the same village. Genetic fingerprinting revealed the Targett family to be descendents of Cheddar Man, and still living in the same area of Britain 9,000 years later – it must be a pretty decent neighbourhood! More recently in May 2013 Adrian Targett met with Craig Dent from Melbourne in Australia, who also proved to be a positive match for the Cheddar DNA.

These stories provide an amazing example of how scientific advancements can make something that’s ancient history a little more tangible. And who knows, with future combinations of archaeology and genetics, one day you might be able to trace your prehistoric grandfather too.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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