Ever aspired to marry into royalty? Maybe you have your eyes fixed on the now depleted pool of eligible English princes? Or you have imagined that you are the lost offspring of an important European monarch? Well, perhaps you are. A new study published in the journal Nature Genetics and covered in the Telegraph has revealed that half of the population of Western Europe is descended from a single Bronze Age chieftan. We can only speculate as to who this man was or how much power and technology he possessed, but, according to this new research, he fathered a dynasty of elite men and left an indelible mark on the population of the world.
The study used data harvested by the 10000 Genomes Project to sequence the differences between the Y chromosomes of over 1,200 men from populations around the world. The Y chromosome is only passed from father to son; thus, by tracing mutations in the Y chromosomes, researchers could compile a family tree.
Oddly, the research showed that within a few generations there was an explosive increase in the number of men carrying a certain kind of Y chromosome. Dr. Yali Xue of the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute observed that this phenomenon occurred only in males and that the many branches of the bush-like family tree they compiled originated at the same point.
Dr. David Poznik of Stanford University, and first author on the paper, added that they “identified more than 60,000 positions where one DNA letter was replaced by another in a man with modern descendants.”
So, what does this mean? One explanation for the pattern, amplified in reporting of the study, is that thousands of years ago increased resources, technology, and war allowed a small group of elite men to exert genetic as well as political dominance over the world. They would have been part of the new hierarchical societies that swept away the more egalitarian social structures of the Neolithic period. There’s no clear record of their success in war, but their power is written in our DNA.
The actual study emphasizes the tentative nature of these conclusions. The authors propose “links between genetic and historical or archaeological data. [But] We caution that, especially in light of as yet imperfect calibration, these connections remain unproven.” Interestingly, the details of the Bronze Age king, which have made headlines around the world, are not to be found in the original paper. They are an imaginative reconstruction on the part of journalists.
This might seem like bad news for those who were hoping that they could now claim to be royalty.
What studies (and coverage of studies) like this reveal, is just how obsessed we are with the notion of ancestry and inheritance. Culturally speaking, our family tree is important for our sense of our identity as well as our personal health. 23andme will even tell us what percentage of Neanderthal we have in us. But the idea that our ancestry is important for “who we are” avoids one basic fact: If you go back far enough, everyone is related to everyone.
As Adam Rutherford has written, everyone in Europe is related to Charlemagne. Why? Biologically we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents, and so on. If a person traces her ancestry back to the time of the emperor Charlemagne she will have a quadrillion ancestors—more ancestors than there were people on the planet at the time. This happens because our family trees aren’t distinct—they are muddled up. Some people will be related to Cleopatra or Charlemagne many more times over than others, but fundamentally we are all related. As Jon Marks, professor of anthropology at UNC-Charlotte, told me, “Every ancestor had two parents, and when you go that many generations back, our ideas of ancestry simply break down. It’s genetic homeopathy, an effectively infinite dilution of DNA.”
The idea of being a “direct descendant” is about the genetic ties our society values for purposes of inheritance and social status. Adorable though he is, Prince George isn’t a genetically superior candidate for King of England than his older cousins are. But he happens to be the eldest son of the eldest son and is now third in line to the throne. Genetically you’re not a more direct descendant of a celebrated historical figure if you happen to have inherited their title through dynastic succession than if your ancestor was raped by that same person. Culturally, however, we prize the former relationship over the latter in order to maintain a certain kind of social order.
This last point highlights the potency of romanticized notions of ancestry. We care so much that we are willing to ignore the violence implicit in studies like this. Reporting of this latest news ignores the fact that the only way a single small group could achieve this kind of genetic dominance would be through rape and sexual violence.
So for those who were hoping that they were descended from Bronze Age monarchy, I have good news and bad news. Whether or not this chieftain existed, you probably are descended from royalty. The problem is, so is everyone else.
Editors note: A previous version of this article mistakenly listed the number of ancestors in Charlemagne's era as 1.2 million.