Sunday, March 14, 2010

An snapshot of how Britain was divided up in 1801

A good website for trying to see how populations changed in Britain is the Histpop website. There is a lot of detail, down to parish level. Genealogists of course know about the 1841 census, and the ones every 10 years after that, but the censuses before that are very good if you just want to know numbers, not names. For Britain this started in 1801, for Ireland unfortunately in 1821, which would have been after some pretty big emigrations.

I made the following summary for Wales, Scotland and England. It will be interesting to keep track of this table, comparing it to our own numbers of participants for each county.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thoughts on how we can focus ourselves, without biasing the data we are collecting

Another online discussion I've had in my first active days on the project, was with Diana Matthiesen. She had a lot of useful points for us, and one thing she emphasized in several posts on the Rootsweb forum was the need to try to keep our data and our project focused and useful.

Many people running larger project advised that we should make the joining process one where permission needs to be granted first, so that we can keep an eye on the data meeting the criteria we have. We plan to do that now. But Diana went further and suggested that we should consider splitting the project up.

She has a point. This project is not only amongst the largest of its type, it is also one of the older ones. When it started there were not many options for people interested in being involved in something like this. These days they can join all kinds of projects which might be more useful for them. Remember we are not a surname project and not a haplogroup project. Many people have joined because of interest in these things.

The project grew quickly, and was split, but things got messy and it was re-merged. Membership criteria were understandably allowed to be loose, but I think it was not the intention that we would reach a situation where our database is so enormous that it is difficult to handle, and yet it is more than half made up of people with uncertain links back to the British Isles, and even a large number of lineages which think they do not have a connection.

But could we really split?

My first online response was a bit negative, but only because Diana's suggestion was to split up by haplogroups. I see two problems with this:-

1. Focused haplogroup studies already exist, and not just here and there, but in a big way.

2. Haplogroup projects are not all equally well publicized and well supported, which in practice leads to them all having very different attendance. We want to know which haplotypes were most common compared to each other, and we will never be able to learn this by for example putting together a composite of data from all the different haplogroup projects.

There are however actually ways we could split without loosing track of our aims:

1. The most obvious, which is now quite likely, is to split into Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA.

2. Another thing we could consider, is splitting into a project or projects for people with pedigrees back to a county, and people without. (This might raise the question of what the un-pedigreed project is for; or I would say, it would make the question more clear to everyone, because it is already a question within part the current project. More about that below.)

3. In the longer run, it is possible to consider splitting into regions or counties or any other smaller units. Of course there are already some projects for some regions, and some of these have pedigree conditions like we do, but we already intend to synchronize our work as much as possible of course.

But, I hear people asking, wouldn't my point about introducing bias then apply to the counties, just like it does to haplogroups, with some counties attracting more attendance?

Sure, but this is already a big problem, sort of. Keep in mind that the bulk of all volunteer genetic genealogists are from North America, Australasia and so on, and these regions did not get the same amount of immigration from every part of the British Isles to begin with.

The good news is that we can solve this bias problem, because there are decent estimates for the population of Britain and Ireland going back in time, and split into counties and even parishes. For example even though the censuses genealogists use for Britain start in 1841, simpler counting censuses started in 1801. I plan to keep a running track of our "bias" compared to such data, so it is always in our mind. If we know the West Riding of Yorkshire should be 3% of the total, then even if for us it is 5% we have the situation under reasonable control.

There is another question of course, and I am receiving mails about it. What are we going to do about all the people who have joined over the years, but have no pedigree back to the British Isles. This is not a super urgent problem, but it is bigger than you might think because the shear number of them means that all other types of work are put off or made difficult. It is also an on-going problem. I receiving questions all the time from people wanting to join and no longer clear what our criteria are.

I think our biggest concern is really just to make sure there is no misunderstanding. I think that in genetic genealogy participation has many types. We are a community in a sense, and in terms of learning from this project or helping it, no pedigree is necessary. But putting your data in the database without the required county information is not helping achieve any aims.

Steve Bird raised the concern in a nice clear way: he is quite confident of his Y-DNA's British Isles background. He just has problems pinning down the exact Birds and the exact counties. For example he has close matches who can trace back, but they are not Birds. He is interested as a researcher himself to make sure his genetic lineage is represented.

I suggested that in cases like this, where you want to make sure your DNA is represented so to speak, the obvious thing to do is to encourage your closest matches to join. After all we do not even really look at the surname. We are not a surname project. For Steve at least, this solution made sense.

...but in any case it is clear that right now we have a situation where for historical reasons there aims and joining criteria have become fuzzy and need to be clarified. We'll be clearing things up in a step by step way. We'll post updates here and there might also be a few mail outs for any key changes.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How is this project aiming to do something new?

First of all thank you to all the people who contributed to several useful discussions around the internet when I announced that I was joining the project's admin team and starting this blog. Some of the points raised touched upon issues I already hoped to discuss at some early point here.

There were two good forum discussions:-

1. At DNA Forums.

2. At the "GENEALOGY-DNA" Rootsweb List. You need to look at multiple threads in both their February and March archives, but most are in February.

Most of the discussion hovered around our own "elephant in the room", which is the historical accumulation of membership we have now who do not meet our aimed-for criteria of having a pedigree link back to a name-able COUNTY within Britain or Ireland. I suppose I'll keep discussing this in everything I say.

A very nice topic for a blog was given by this post, which asked "What information is gained that would not be gained thru ysearch?" Thanks warwick!

First we have to break this question up: are we asking what extra information will be gained by an individual who joins the project, or are we asking as a community what information is gained by the project as a whole, for the community as a whole.

For an individual, especially if your main interest is genealogy, I can not emphasize enough that although this project's existence can and will help you indirectly, the most important thing you need for genealogy is a surname project, or any similar tightly-focused project. Genetic genealogy revolves around those. Do not treat the British Isles Project as a replacement for that. We are working on the big picture, and background information which can support surname projects.

However, as part of a community of people wanting such support information, the project definitely does aim to provide something different to not only ysearch, but also smgf, and yhrd.

...And being different is the key. Collecting data for the British Isles is not the type of job where one can realistically aim to have the best database in every way, so that no-one need ever use another database. All such data-collecting is so fraught with problems that what we really want are several different data collections so that we can compare them, and then get a feeling for where likely biases might exist in one or all of them.

So what we aim to do differently, is as follows (but maybe people can add a few and we can come up with a standard list). The following applies to Y DNA for now...
  • We are collecting detailed SNP results, which SMGF can not easily give you.
  • A large percentage of our data will have more STR markers tested than by SMGF.
  • Our data (or right now I should say the hard core of our data) will also be high quality in terms of having pedigrees back to counties of origin.
  • Ysearch unfortunately contains many doubled-up or dummy haplotypes, as well as errors in terms of marker conversions or ancestor information, and should not be used in raw form.
(Using it in filtered form means a lot of work, and in a sense you could say we are trying to create a filtered and therefore inevitably smaller equivalent of ysearch.)

This means we are going to have results which reflect something closer to the British Isles before industrialization, and going back towards the relative stability of the Middle Ages. (See the first post.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

First Post! Introduction.

Note: this first post on the blog is also the first version of the "About" page. It seems a good idea to start things off with the basics!

This blog is a part of the British Isles DNA Project.

The project, is a project made up of, and administered by, volunteer genetic genealogists with a specific interest in the genetic make-up of Britain and Ireland, both out of scientific interest and also because improved understandings of this are helping genealogists identify likely origins for their ancestors. This is one of the biggest projects of this type.

We the co-admins are:

There are two basic aims of the blog:-

  • The primary aim is to provide on-going informal updates to both our fellow participants and our correspondents working in this same field. Having a blog helps avoid the problem of needing to wait for publishable and perfected conclusions in order to get a feel for what is happening, and it also gives people a chance to give better feedback that might help the project.
  • The secondary aim is to promote and assist not only participation, but also the best possible participation.

What do we mean by "best possible participation"? The blog will hopefully help remind all of us of the practical importance to this project of trying to identify the British or Irish county-of-origin of participants' ancestors. This means along the male line of Y DNA participants, and the maternal line of mitochondrial DNA participants. Please note that if you can name a parish of origin, this is better than only the county, and if you can get back earlier than 1800 your data becomes particularly important!

We (the admins) may be able to help advise participants about how to trace their family trees back further in Britain in some cases.

We therefore ask our fellow participants to all do their best to make sure they have given us the best possible information about their ancestral origins. For Family Tree DNA customers there is a box where you can put such information, but please check with us if you need any help. For participants coming from other testing companies or organizations, you will need to contact us in order to get all information correct for you.

(If there is any reason why privacy concerning your distant ancestors is an issue, omitting the ancestor’s name, especially their first name, is less of an issue for this project than omitting the time and place when he or she lived, so please insert those if possible. Parish name + County name + some Date reference such as “adult in 1760s” would be fine.)

Let’s be ambitious in trying to teach ourselves and others about the historic genetic make-up of the British Isles and how the different parts fitted with each other and their European neighbors going back in time. This is a new field where we amateurs are playing a role in science-based research. You may be surprised to know that academic researchers have problems we do not have because most people they test do not know where their ancestors lived before the industrial revolution, whereas genealogists like us tend to know our ancestors. (We also tend to buy ourselves and our relatives pretty good quality DNA tests, because we often need 37 or more markers in order to make genealogically useful conclusions!)

For those who are interested, here are some academic articles, in these cases about Y DNA. The first one tries to use localized surnames in order to see if they can help get a more accurate measure of genetic populations before industrialism. It is not a big study but it shows the genetic impact of the fact that in industrialized areas, where people live today is not the same as where their ancestors lived. The second one is an interesting summary of the area, and mentions genetic genealogist amateurs specifically.

  • Bowden et al. (2008), "Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling: The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England", Molecular Biology and Evolution 25 (2): 301-309, doi:10.1093/molbev/msm255
  • King and Jobling (2009), "What's in a name? Y chromosomes, surnames and the genetic genealogy revolution", Trends in Genetics 25 (8): 351-360, doi:10.1016/j.tig.2009.06.003.
Online at