Posted on May 8, 2013

How Europeans Are One Big Family

Fiona Macrae, Daily Mail (London), May 8, 2013

After centuries of almost endless conflict, it would be hard to claim Europe is one big family–but that’s just what we are, say scientists.

Those of European descent still living on the continent are related to each other through a common ancestry dating back just 1,000 years, they claim.

Even people geographically separated by thousands of miles, such as a Briton and a Turk, are distantly related.

University of California researcher Graham Coop said: ‘What is remarkable is how closely everyone is related to each other.

‘On a genealogical level, everyone in Europe traces back to nearly the same set of ancestors only a thousand years ago.’

Professor Coop made the claim after checking the DNA of more than 2,000 Europeans for common segments that have been passed down the generations.

As these chunks of DNA get shorter from generation to generation, it is possible to work out how far back they date–and so when we shared ancestors.

It might seem incredible that everyone who was alive in Europe in 1013 and had children is an ancestor of everyone on the continent today, the researchers say that simple maths backs them up.

This is because the number of ancestors a person has doubles with each generation–you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on.

The number grows so quickly that just 1,000 years back, or 30 generations, you have roughly one billion ancestors.

This is far more than the population of the world, far less Europe, back then.

As a result anyone from 1,000 years ago who left any descendants is related to every European alive today.

The DNA analysis showed that the number of ancestors shared by two people falls the further apart the pair live.

So someone from the UK is on average more related to another Briton than a German.

However, they have more DNA in common with the German than with a Greek.

However, there are some blips.

For instance, people in Britain have more distant cousins in Ireland than they do here.

This, the journal PLoS Biology reports, is likely to be a result of migration from the smaller population of  Ireland to the larger one of the UK.

David Balding, professor of statistical genetics at University College London, said that it only takes a small amount of movement for new genes to gain a foothold in a population.

He said: ‘You don’t need a lot of migration, you just need some and that is pretty much what we see all through history, mainly through wars but also through trade and people looking for new pastures.’

Geneticists have previously estimated they only have to go back 3,500 years ago for everyone in the world to be related.

In other words, many of us can trace our roots back to the same colourful characters.

The charity Sense about Science has warned this devalues expensive mail order tests that claim to trace a person’s ancestry from a sample of their DNA.

It also means that claims that someone is related to a famous figure such as Cleopatra or has Viking blood–are often as likely to be true for the person having the test as their boss or next-door neighbour.