Africa in Britain

Music

Sarah Fourcheraud (producer)

You’re listening to Decoding Nature’s Alphabet

Prof. Turi King

We are hugely interconnected. I mean, one of the things that I always say is that we are all related to one another. It is simply a matter of our, of the degree and the genetics absolutely shows us that.

Ron McCullagh (presenter)

In this episode Professor Turi King, Professor of Public Engagement and Genetics at the University of Leicester will be explaining Africa’s long involvement in Britain’s national identity. Hello again Turi

Prof. Turi King

Hello

Ron McCullagh

So, it should be of no surprise that the very first hominid who arrived in Britain was of African descent.

Prof. Turi King

So that’s what we know about human evolution. We know that we actually, as a species evolved in Africa and we know that there were a number of migration events out of Africa. So, we know that for example, you get an archaic human species known as Homo erectus, uh, which spreads out of Africa about 2 million years ago. We know that actually prior to this, there’s a, an another, um, archaic human known as, um, Australopithecus afarensis the most famous one being Lucy, uh, who was mainly excavated in the 1970s and apparently called Lucy because they had “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, by the Beatles playing in the background for a lot of the excavation – so, that’s how she got her name. And then we know that after Homo erectus is, is it moves out of Africa and it goes to sort of various parts of the world.

We know that then anatomically modern humans, so Homo sapiens, then also move out of Africa. And the date for this is contested as new information comes to light but it’s looking like it’s around  80 thousand years ago, give or take, um, possibly even older than that and that they then also move out of Africa. What we do know is that the precise evolutionary path of the human family tree is hotly debated. We know that Homo sapiens then moved out of Africa and to some extent there was interbreeding with Homo sapiens and other archaic humans. So, like, uh, Neanderthals, for example, um, but that, eventually they were sort of replaced by Homo sapiens around the world.

We know this from stone tools and, uh, from footprints. We know that there was one known as homo heidelbergensis, uh, that was here around 500,000 years ago and we know that we’ve, essentially had archaic humans in Britain on and off over the last, nearly a million years. We don’t actually get sort of a continuous, um, modern humans here until after about 13,000 years ago, because we had the ice age that happened. So, then you start to get continuous occupation by Homo sapiens, and this is starting in the Mesolithic. So, this is when you get hunter gatherers, uh, coming into Britain and probably our most famous one of those is, um, a specimen known as Cheddar Man, uh, because he was found in Cheddar Gorge.

Ron McCullagh

Now, Cheddar Man, is the first time we get some DNA evidence.

Prof. Turi King

He’s the one who’s the most famous, we’ve got other ones, but he’s the one where, we’ve got kind of, um, a lot of genetic evidence from him. And, and he actually kind of really hit the headlines because one of the things that the scientists did was they had to look at bits of the genome that we know predict for skin pigmentation. Now, it’s very important to say that it predicts for skin pigmentation because there are lots and lots of genes that we know are associated with, pigmentation and they’ve just looked at a few of them, ones that we do know about, and that was coming back as looking like he would have had a darker skin colour than we would have been expecting and blue eyes, which was interesting. And the other thing that they were able to show was that he was lactose intolerant.

Now lactose intolerance is this thing whereby you are unable to digest the sugar lactose in milk into adulthood. So normally what happens is, you know, you’re born and for breastfeeding, obviously you need to be able to break down this, the sugar that’s in milk, and it’s this ability that wanes over time. So, the gene sort of switches itself off, but this ability to drink milk into adulthood is something that has been associated with the spread of the Neolithic…so, the spread of farming with dairying across time, so it’s interesting. And that makes sense. So, Cheddar Man, he’s in the Mesolithic, this is hunter gatherers, he’s lactose intolerance. And then you start to see this rise of this ability, this ability to be able to drink milk into adulthood, uh, slowly becomes something that’s more prominent during the Neolithic. So, with the spread of dairying.

Ron McCullagh

So, we’ve had these, this, these at least two movements out of Africa. When do we see evidence of modern Africans in Britain?

Prof. Turi King

Well, so, within the historical record, you start getting records of them in the Roman period. So, we know that there’s a record, uh, of, you know, first record of an African in Britain in 210 AD. And certainly, we know that there’s a garrison of African soldiers who are guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the mid third century. And we know about this in the historical documentation, but we know that there have been Africans in Britain over the last sort of 2000 years. Um, in the, in the Irish annals, it talks about the Vikings having Blaumen, blue men. And this is thought to have been the Vikings, bringing slaves from North Africa and up into Ireland. And then obviously we find them within, um, within Tudor courts for example…so, we know that Catherine of Aragon had, uh, an African lady of the bed chamber, and she apparently became someone who was quite sought after, because, um, when it was, um, she would have known whether or not Catherine and Henry VIII’s elder brother…they were, they were obviously married…so, and then he dies and she marries Henry VIII. And when Henry VIII tried to say, Ooh, you know, this marriage was invalid, this African lady of the bed chamber becomes somebody who could be a witness and who could say whether or not that first marriage was actually consummated. And we know about this, there’s, there’s huge amount of historical record that show that we’ve had Africans here for hundreds and hundreds of years. They’re in the Tudor court, for example, um, we know about a woman called Dido Belle who was, um, an aristocrat, a black aristocrat. She was actually, uh, the results of, um, a liaison between a chap who was a naval captain and, uh, he has a relationship with Dido’s mother. Dido was born, Dido was then brought back to England and raised within this aristocratic family. And obviously there could have been large numbers of, of Africans coming here as part of the slave trade as domestic servants and musicians. So, Africans have been in, in Britain, I mean, you know, for time and memorial sort of thing.

Ron McCullagh

And so has, uh, the DNA of Africa been in Britain.

Prof. Turi King

Absolutely. So, I mean, one particular case that I, I worked on as part of my PhD…so my PhD was about the link between a person’s surname, a man’s surname and his Y chromosome. And that is because surnames in Britain, uh, became hereditary for the majority of the population about 500 to 700 years ago. So, before that, they don’t tend to necessarily be hereditary – they can even change in your lifetime. So, surnames come down through the male line and there’s a segment of our DNA, which putting it most simply has got on it, the gene for maleness. So, it’s a gene that switches on at about six weeks gestation and sends the foetus down the path to becoming a boy. So, Y chromosomes are passed from a father to his son, which goes down to the grandson down through the generations. So, the question was, do all men who have the same surname, do they have the same Y chromosome type?

Because there was an original Mr. Attenborough for example, who had this surname who passed it down through the generations with his Y chromosome. And one of the surnames that I was looking at was Revis. And actually, what happened was at the beginning of the PhD, it was simply a case of putting a call out to local people saying, you know, would you like to take part in this study?… It’s looking at surnames and the Y chromosome.  And this sample came in and I was looking at it and, uh, it kept coming back as, uh, an African Y chromosome type. Now, obviously Leicester’s a very, very multicultural city so, it could easily be that though Revis is on the surface a British surname, that this was somebody with, um, more recent African ancestry. So brought the person in and he looked, you know, for lack of a better… white British.

And, um, and we asked him, you know, do you, do you know of any African ancestry in your family tree? Because the Y chromosome that was coming back was an extremely rare type. At the time, there were only sort of in the mid-twenties of, of examples in the world at the time and they all came from Northwest Africa and he didn’t know of any African ancestry, but as I say, when you look at his Y chromosome type it’s, it’s definitely from Africa. So, what I did was I sampled other men with the same surname from around the country, and randomly it came back as there were seven of them all with this really unusual Y chromosome type. So, we had a genealogist who was able to place them into two family trees, one going back to 1788, one going back to 1789.

They both went back to sort of, to the Yorkshire area. And there’s kind of two main routes that this, this African Y chromosome type could have appeared in this family. And obviously the first one is that garrison of, of African soldiers who were guarding Hadrian’s Wall, but the most likely one is actually through the slave trade, because we, we know that there would have been, you know, hundreds of individuals who arrived here from Africa, and they became domestic servants, um, often rose up very high in society. And so that’s the most likely route though, he himself did bring up the possibility of the Vikings and the Blaumen because that, you know, that is another route, but one of the things is as a geneticist, I know we all have very complex genetic ancestry, and this is not the only case. So, I have other similar cases where I have found that there are individuals who class themselves as White British with what looks like African, Y chromosome types.

I mean, they’re old African Y chromosomes, but they’ve, they’ve arrived here probably relatively recently. And there was a case that actually went out in the, in the press. There was, uh, a chap who’d had his DNA tested by one of these direct-to-consumer testing companies known as Britain’s DNA. And it was all over the press about how he was Eve’s grandson, which of course is not strictly the case. But what it was, was that he had a mitochondrial DNA type. So mitochondrial DNA comes down through the female line. He had a mitochondrial DNA type that was African again. So, you, you definitely find this among people alive today, that they have got African ancestry. You can spot it in their, their DNA. I think it’s kind of really indicative of a fact that, that we have had a very kind of mixed population over the last few hundred years.

I mean, even, so, people like Samuel Johnson who wrote, um, you know, that very famously wrote the, the Dictionary of the English Language. Um, his man servant was a chap called Francis Barber. Um, and when, um, Samuel Johnson died, he left Barber his money and he, and he went on to go on and marry and have children. So, I, it’s the fact that you get these people who are just part of normal society. And so, you find traces of these people having been here in among the DNA of people who are alive today,

Ron McCullagh

It’s so extraordinary that this piece of science reveals this echo through the centuries that’s, that’s solid. That’s a line of knowledge that in, in most other ways is lost. I mean, of course there’s some writing, there’s some archelogy, but, but this biological signifier of origin, it’s, it’s always with us.

Prof. Turi King

Absolutely. I know one of the things I found was really interesting when that study came out was the real interest in it. There was a huge amount of interest in it at the time we actually didn’t put out what the surname was because we’re protecting the privacy of those who were involved in the project. Um, we just put it out as the surname R. And interestingly enough, um, the son tried to work out what the name was and they came up, I think, with the surname Marston. So, they hadn’t even realised that maybe it might start with R, I got on the phone to the, the chap who had originally first taken part in the study and said, look, there’s a lot of interest in this story. I don’t know if you’re interested in talking to the press and he did, and he got paid quite a lot of money to do so, but what was really interesting for me was they were asking him questions, like, do you feel like eating couscous and riding on a camel?    So, it’s this kind of conflating of cultural sort of stereotypes.

Ron McCullagh

It’s a fascinating fact, that the diversity, uh, of genes throughout the whole population of the continent of Africa is greater than it is in, in the rest of the world.

Prof. Turi King

Absolutely. So that’s the thing about, it’s one of the things that, that supports this, the out of Africa model that was developed through looking at the fossils was that if you look at the genetic diversity across Africa, it’s, it’s absolutely huge. And the diversity that you see outside of Africa is a subset of that, that you see within Africa. And again, that makes complete sense because what you’ve got with the out of Africa hypothesis is that you’ve got, you’re going to have a subgroup of people who are migrating at different times and, and, you know, groups going and individuals going. But what that does is it’s known as a bottleneck. So, you’ve not got all of the genetic diversity, you’ve got a subset of that. And then as people move out of that bottleneck, and they’re spreading throughout the world, you get diversity again happening. But what you can see when you look at the DNA is that the DNA that you find in the rest of the world is a subset of that, that you find in Africa.  Everything points to humankind having originated in Africa.

Ron McCullagh

What does it in the end tell us about race, Turi?

Prof. Turi King

Genetics does not fit with the, kind of the cultural idea of, of race. So, this was, uh, obviously, um, something that came up in the sort of Victorian period, these, this idea of sort of various races. So obviously ideas of race go back even further, but it’s something that kind of, really kind of came into science in the Victorian period. But when you look at the genetic data, as I was saying earlier, what you find is not that there are stark genetic differences between populations at all. You get the fact that you’ve got slightly higher frequencies of particular variants within our DNA in particular parts of the world, but you don’t get hard borders or anything like, and you certainly don’t get any kind of dramatic genetic differences that, that, you know, match any kind of political borders or anything like that because obviously political borders are cultural things that have been imposed much more recently.

So, what you find is that that actually across the world, we are incredibly, incredibly similar. In fact, there’s a, there’s another thing that geneticists will often talk about. And that is the fact that the amount of genetic diversity in a, in a population is actually huge. So, if, for example, asteroid hits earth… and the only country that’s left with anyone surviving is, you know, pick a random country, you know, Brazil or something like that. You still have got 85% of human, genetic diversity in that single population still existing. And that’s because we are remarkably genetically similar, no matter where you are in the world.

Ron McCullagh

Do you think our fuller understanding of DNA is going to change the way we think of race?

Prof. Turi King

I certainly hope so. Uh, because as I say, so the genetics, the diversity that we see in the world does not correspond to ideas of race. And so, what I’m hoping is that as we learn more and more about this, and as people, geneticists talk about it more and more, people will realise that the idea of, of race as people, if it’s not, it’s not a helpful concept.

Ron McCullagh

Well, it’s unscientific.

Prof. Turi King

Yeah. It’s, it’s not something that that’s born out by the genetics. You don’t find boundaries between individuals. And, um, for example, so people often, um, kind of equate race with things like skin colour, for example. But if you look across Africa, you’ve got huge variation in skin pigmentation equally, you can get the same skin pigmentation in huge numbers of countries around the world. So, it’s something where you can’t go, well, “this person has got, um, you know, a darker pigmentation and therefore they must be from here”. You can’t, you can’t do that because you can get the same pigmentation occurring in various parts of the world.

Ron McCullagh

We have this sort of counter-intuitive appearance of African chromosomes appearing in, uh, white populations. Do we have a counter to that with the Afro Caribbeans who live in Britain today? What, do we find out from their genes that’s surprising?

Prof. Turi King

Well, again, so this is, this is, can be the legacy of the slave trade. So, for example, you, we know that about 25% of African Caribbean men have got Y chromosome types that look like they are European. So that’s the kind of the, the counterpoint to this. And, um, it can be an interesting kind of revelation for them. We, we were involved in, uh, a project, uh, known as The Motherland Project, which was a television series. And, uh, the chap who took part in that, one of the things that we did find was that he had, uh, a European Y chromosome type. Again, all of this is all legacy of the slave trade.

And the other thing you find is obviously, you have this sort of thing arising much more recently, so that we, we know that there were thousands of African-American GIs actually. So, we had American GIs over here, and thousands of babies born out of relationships that arose between American GIs and, um, British girls, but also you find it where you have, um, African-American GIs. So, there were a lot of babies that had this sort of mixed ancestry, and people usually know about that, but the DNA can absolutely confirm it for them and give them some idea as to where their African ancestry side, uh, came from.

Ron McCullagh

What’s the most surprising reaction that you have seen when it comes to explaining to somebody where genetically they have come from?

Prof. Turi King

So, I think the for some people, if they’ve got a question in their family, and when you either say, look, the genetics does show that this is the case, or it doesn’t, you can see about how that is already kind of changing their own kind of internal narrative about who they are. So, it gives them an answer one way or the other, but if it’s something that they’ve already kind of had in their mind, I really think this is the case. And then you say, Ooh, actually the genetics does not back that up. It can be…it can almost be like you’re giving, you’re giving them sort of life-changing information. And you can see that being absorbed, you know, as, as they’re kind of, you know, you’re giving it and you can see that their view of themselves is, is changing.

And my guess is what happens is that takes a little bit of time for it to digest. They’ll have their first reaction, and then they’ll go away and think about it. Um, I can imagine that for certain individuals, if they’ve got a really strong view of, of where they come from, then not being able to provide that kind of genetic information can be disappointing. So certainly, from my point of view, I have worked on, on projects where, for example, we’ve been looking at the genetic legacy of the Vikings in the North of England. And what I really loved was when people would ring up and say, can you tell me if I am a Viking? So, I love that because it’s present tense and the Vikings were around a thousand years ago, but it’s, um, it’s seen as part of their identity and what they would like is the genetic kind of evidence to show that that’s actually true.

And I find it’s really interesting because the genetic evidence… they almost see it like a silver bullet type thing. Like this is rock hard and this tells me that I have got Viking ancestry. So, it’s one of those things when I have to kind of explain to somebody that look, you’ve got two parents and four grandparents and eight great grandparents, if you go back to the time of the Vikings and a number of, kind of, you know, calculated number of ancestors that you would have had at the time was more than the population of the world. So, I can pretty much guarantee you that you have, you’ve got Viking ancestry in there somewhere probably multiple times. But what people really want is that genetic like that seal, that badge that is there, but it’s something that you, you, you can’t necessarily give them even when doing studies in that, I’m looking at somebody Y chromosome type, for example.

And again, this is just one of somebody’s many ancestors, because it’s just the male line and you look at their Y chromosome and you go, okay…so that’s one that it, it does tend to be found at high-frequency in Norway, but it doesn’t mean for certain that, that particular ancestor to came over as part of the Viking migration. It might’ve been earlier. It might’ve been later. So just, you know, take it with a pinch of salt and you can almost hear people, some people going “lalala”, I don’t want to hear the kind of the grey areas. I just want to know that I have Viking Y chromosome type, which obviously you can’t say because again, even if a Y chromosome type is found at high frequency in Norway, it doesn’t mean it’s not found in other parts of Europe and it could have come in through a completely different route. So this is where you get this kind of tension where people would like the genetics to be able to tell them something almost about who they are and genetics can’t necessarily provide that, that information for them. And so, it’s an interesting discussion I sometimes have with people.

Ron McCullagh

Given that the genes purposes as Dawkins famously referred to in The Selfish Gene, is to be selfish, is to reproduce, I suppose, the question then is, are we too caught up with all of this? I mean, does it really matter because at the end of the day, as you’ve already described, uh, you know, this is almost ubiquitous to all of, all of the characteristics of the human condition. So does it really matter?

Prof. Turi King

I know people tend to get a little bit surprised by this, but I’ve not had my DNA tested because I, I, well, certainly not for anything in terms of like working out who I am, because who I am is, you know, I’m a, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, I’m a scientist, I’m an academic, I’m a …, and, and that’s not, that’s who I am. I don’t feel like my DNA is necessarily who I, I am. Obviously, you know, DNA obviously has a part to play because whoever we are is, is a function of our, our genetic makeup, but also our environment, everything from, you know, where we grow up and what we eat and how much exercise we get and so on and so forth. So, for, for some people, I think it must be a very, very big deal. I, myself don’t find it to be,

Ron McCullagh

Well, I think genetics has actually helped us today understand at a broader level, something about all of us. And that is how interconnected we actually all are.

Prof. Turi King

Absolutely.  We are hugely interconnected. I mean, one of the things that I always say is that we are all related to one another. It is simply a matter of our, of degree and the genetics absolutely shows us that.

Music

Sarah Fourcheraud

You’ve been listening to Decoding Nature’s Alphabet presented by Ron McCullagh and produced by me, Sarah Fourcheraud. Our next episode is called “Names – Bacon Double Cheese Burger”. Where do we get our names from  – not our titles – and how does DNA help us answer that question? To get transcripts, or contact us and say nice things, please visit our website www.expressivemindsmedia.com If you’re enjoying these podcasts, please share to help us produce more. All our episodes are on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast platform.