Family history and genetics

granny allsworth 4 generations

Four generations: my g-gran, gran, mother and eldest sister; c. 1940, Masterton.

I am currently doing a free online course via the University of Strathclyde (on Future Learn) called Genealogy: Researching your family tree. Last week we were introduced to the potential usefulness of DNA tests for family historians. I was surprised at how this polarised learners. We seemed to divide into about four groups: those who have had the tests and found relatives and as a result were enthusiastic; some have had the tests but been disappointed they haven’t (yet) found relatives; some hadn’t had the tests but were interested in learning more, and those who haven’t had a test and thought the topic was a waste of their time.

I fall between groups two and three – I have had a test, but it wasn’t for family history purposes and I’m not interested in having another (at the moment) but am interested in learning more about them.

I’m not an expert – or even very knowledgeable. If you want more information, a good place to start is the website of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy.[1]  It doesn’t mean that trying to find ancestors via a DNA test requires the ancestor to have had a test (which would be very unlikely!) The hope is that your test results will match those of someone else on a database, which means you have a common ancestor, and by getting in touch with them hopefully you can find who that common ancestor was. There are success stories on the ISOGG website, and some were also related by people on the course.

A couple of years ago I took part in the ‘Africa to Aotearoa’ project, which “seeks to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species, specifically in addressing the migration history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and answer age-old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity. The project is funded in part by National Geographic’s Genographic project.” The tests were free, so I jumped at the chance to learn something new.

I had a Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, as it’s abbreviated to) test. “This tests the mtDNA of females to help identify the ancestral migratory origins of your direct maternal line.” An important point to note was that it was not a genealogy study. “You will not learn about your recent relatives, and your DNA trail will not necessarily lead to your present-day location. Rather, your results will reveal the ancient anthropological story of your direct maternal … ancestors — where they lived and how they migrated around the world many thousands of years ago…”[2]

So, my maternal line ‘haplogroup’ is K1a1b. “Haplogroups pertain to your deep ancestral origins dating back thousands of years.”[3] Each haplogroup is defined by a set of characteristic mutations on the mitochondrial genome, and can be traced along a person’s maternal line to a specific prehistoric woman. I first came across the idea in Bryan Sykes’s 2001 book ‘The seven daughters of Eve‘ – as well as discussing the genetics, he then gave fictional accounts of the so-called seven ‘clan mothers’; ‘K’ he called Katrine. K is not ‘Eve’ by the way – there are earlier branches (U, R, N and L = ‘Eve’).

Although I can’t find out anything specifically about K1a1b as I believe not enough people have been tested yet, the earlier branch of K1a: “is thought to have arisen around 19,000 to 22,000 years ago. It is by far the most common and diverse subclade in Europe today, and was already by far the most common subclade among Neolithic farmers. The vast majority of Neolithic samples from Central and Western Europe were K1a.”[4]

These maps show the path out of Africa for the K1 branch and a map of where K is more common. (The first is sourced from my results in the Africa to Aotearoa project; the second from the Eupedia website – see footnote 4.)


Subclades are ‘branches’ of the haplogroup. In the K1 group it begins like this:

  • K1
    • K1a
      • K1a1 : found in central and south-eastern Europe
        • K1a1a : found in central, northern and western Europe
        • K1a1b [Me – found in New Zealand]
          • K1a1b1 : found in western Europe
            • K1a1b1a : major Ashkenazi Jewish subclade
            • K1a1b1b : found in Scandinavia and Britain
            • K1a1b1c : found in north-western Europe
            • K1a1b1d : found in Britain
            • K1a1b1e : found in western Europe
            • K1a1b1f : found in north-western Europe
            • K1a1b1g : found in Greece
          • K1a1b2
            • K1a1b2a : found in north-western Europe
            • K1a1b2b : found in Britain
        • K1a1c : found in north-western Europe…. (etc)

There are many more! As it is relatively common in Europe it’s perhaps not surprising that Ötzi the iceman “Europe’s oldest natural human mummy, dating from 5,300 years ago, was found to belong to haplogroup K1f.[5] (Which seems to be a subclade especially created for him; his is the oldest European genome ever tested, so far.) I couldn’t begin to guess how closely Ötzi and I are related.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through females. While men have it from their mothers they can’t pass it on. So my brothers have the same as me, but only my sisters have passed it on. My mother’s sisters have also passed on the same mtDNA – and so on with other generations. (Men can have the Y-DNA test, which can be more useful for family history as surnames usually follow the male line, at least in England for the last 500 or so years.)[6] So, the test I had only traces the maternal line – that is, my mother’s mother’s mother’s … etc … mother.

My mother: Nella Emily Jones (1918, Masterton, New Zealand – 2003, Masterton, NZ)

Her mother: Minnie May Allsworth (1885, Masterton – 1967, Masterton)

Her mother: Emily May Morris (1854, London, England – 1942, Masterton, NZ)

Her mother: Emma Jane Hudd (1828, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England – 1900 Masterton, NZ)

Her mother: Elizabeth Applegate (1796, Trowbridge, Wiltshire – 1868)*

Her mother: Jane –, wife of James or John Applegate (? Wiltshire?)

*Since writing this post, I have been contacted by Joe Hudd who has a website with more information about Elizabeth Applegate and William Hudd.

These photos show the Morris family [left] with Emma Morris (nee Hudd) in the centre and daughter Emily May Morris sitting on the centre left; Right: Emily at a younger age; Below: My mother sitting between her parents, Minnie on the right. Mum’s siblings Ted, Mavis, Eila and Arthur at the back and father Norman Jones on the left.


So there I am back about 1800 most likely in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England. If I could continue back on my maternal line for some unknown hundreds (or thousands) of years I’d find the woman with the K1a1b mtDNA marker and even further (about 19,000 years, give or take a couple of thousand) to find my K1a ur-mother. But, in the meantime I’ll continue researching the ‘out of Wiltshire’ scenario. I am pleased to note that according to the Eupedia website: “haplogroup K could be protective against Alzheimer’s Disease” and is possibly associated with increased longevity!

Map of Wiltshire County (red boundary; from Google maps) – interestingly it is not far from where my father’s mother’s family, the Reads and Sheckells, came from, but I’m sure that is just coincidence.

county of wiltshire

Those interested can find a genetic history of the British here.

All these women had K1a1b mtDNA! My great-grandmother in centre with her daughters.



[1] This site will tell you about the different tests and what results you can expect and many more resources including comparison charts of different companies that offer tests,


[3] See ISOGG glossary:

[4] From Eupedia / genetics: (accessed 12 April 2016)

[5] Eupedia (see footnote 4)

[6] There is also another test called an autosomal DNA test, see for example:


4 thoughts on “Family history and genetics

  1. Nice explanation of mitochondrial DNA and how it applies to the female line of your family – loved the photos of the generations of women! I’ll probably be more interested in DNA tests when they become more useful for family history purposes. At the moment it costs too much for me, but should be more worthwhile once the DNA companies’ databases become larger, giving a better chance of matches.


  2. Nice to see someone else is researching my family name. Been researching my Hudd line for a long time. Be great to speak to you. We are connected from Elizabeth Applegate and her marriage to William Hudd.


  3. I had my mitochondrial DNA completely sequenced, and I am K1a1b. I was born in Turkey and my maternal ancestry goes back to the 1850s and most likely before there. I guess Vivienne’s and my maternal ancestry goes back to a Neolithic grandma who lived in western Asia or in the Fertile Crescent 10-12,000 years ago.


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