PARIS: The earliest known African contributor to the current British gene pool was a man who lived in Yorkshire, northern England, in the late 1700s, according to researchers.
In an analysis of British genetic diversity, scientists at the University of Leicester in central England, recruited 421 men who described themselves as British and analysed their Y chromosome, which is handed down from father to son.
One of the men was found to have an unusual type of chromosome, hgA1, normally found in West African males. As the man also had an unusual surname, derived from a village in the east of the northern English county of Yorkshire, the team endeavoured to track down other men with the same monicker.
Of 18 such men who were traced and volunteered a sample of DNA for testing, seven were found to carry the same HgA1 chromosome haplotype.
The team then carried out a genealogical probe, discovering that all eight were united by a common ancestor, a man who lived in Yorkshire around 1780. Who that individual was remains a mystery; he could have been a first-generation immigrant from Africa, or a descendant of such a man.
“Our findings represent the first genetic evidence of Africans among ‘indigenous’ British and emphasise the complexity of human migratory history,” reported the study, which appears in the latest issue of the European Journal of Human Genetics.
The authors, led by geneticist Mark Jobling, said that this discovery highlights the pitfalls of assigning a geographical origin to types of Y chromosomes. According to the team, human migration has been continuing for so long and across such huge distances that an individual’s chromosomal heritage may no longer be pinned reliably to a region or a continent.
Around eight per cent of the United Kingdom’s population of 54 million belong to ethnic minorities and, in the 2001 census, more than one million classified themselves as “black or black British,” according to the paper. For many Britons, immigration began soon after World War II, but in fact contact with Africa – and thus the opportunity for genetic mingling – occurred many centuries before.
Africans were first recorded in Britain 1,800 years ago, as “a division of Moors” in the Roman army deployed along a fortification in what is now northern England called Hadrian’s Wall, built to ward off invading Scots.
The Atlantic slave trade also brought West Africans to Britain from about the 16th century, many of whom were used as servants, musicians and entertainers. 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, stated the paper.
The ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis of human origins (see Out of Africa and into Russia, Cosmos Online) takes Africa’s legacy much farther back. The theory holds that all six billion humans alive today are descendants of small groups of Homo sapiens who ventured out of East Africa around 200,000 years ago and then spread around the world.