Surnames, DNA, and Family History. By George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey. Oxford University Press. 2011. 256pp. £20.00.


This is a fascinating book because of its very interdisciplinary approach. Modern genetics has teamed up with English local history to produce a remarkably forward-looking and innovative field of research. David Hey is well known, among many other things, for his fine publications on surnames, family and local history, and he has worked at the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester, and at Sheffield University. George Redmonds specializes in name studies and local history, having published widely on surnames, genes and genealogy. Turi King is a research fellow at the famous genetics department at the University of Leicester, and her work examines the link between surname and Y-chromosome type in Britain, exploring this relationship and its applications in the fields of genealogy, forensics and population history. That genetics department is world-renowned for the discovery by Sir Alec Jeffreys of the technique of DNA fingerprinting, and it now pioneers research into major genetic questions in evolution, disease, behaviour and development. The combination of such an energizing trio of authors promises much, and this book is striking and original as a result.

It features detailed analyses of surname issues, distributions, by-names, hereditary surnames, the effects of migration on naming patterns, social and linguistic factors in surname spread, and many related subjects. This takes up much of the first half or so of the book, and is persistently interesting in its long-term scholarly erudition. Ireland, Scotland and Wales are considered as well as England. Excellent maps on surname geographies are shown, indicating the great variety of spread and regional patterning that exists in surnames. In some cases these are very tightly located (e.g. names like Golightly, Anders, Adlam, Ashburner, Cowgill), while in others (e.g. Campbell) there is much wider coverage. The meanings of these patterns in historical terms are finely explored, notably through case studies, and there is much here to absorb any social, regional or local historian, whether they are medievalists or modernists. Clearly, surnames are a major historical source in their own right, beyond being of great family-historical interest. They speak to so many issues in historical demography, migration studies, hereditary transitions, settlement evolution, kinship densities, cultural differences, British incorporations, occupational patterns, trade, European connections, linguistic studies, and much more.

The book then moves to quite technical but highly readable exposition of DNA structures and related analysis, most of which will be new to historians, even though the publicity and media programming that these techniques have received in recent years has been considerable. Issues of inheritance, mutation, genes, the Y chromosome and its make-up, and laboratory procedures are expounded well. Questions about the links between surnames and genetics are discussed, illustrated well with individual studies, for example of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Some involved charts and figures, for example of an electropherogram, assist in explanation. There is apparently a one-in-four chance that two men with the same surname in the British Isles will be related via a common ancestor in the last few hundred years, and if the most common surnames are removed the chance increases to 50 per cent. There are complicated issues and problems here, given the 700-year or so time depth of surnames, and the male lineage of such names. Yet the explanation of the science is masterly and informative throughout, introducing historians to haplotypes, binary markers and the like, and explaining how and to what limits the genetic techniques can illuminate surname and historical studies.

Clearly, surname analysis has moved to new realms from the preserves of specialist language studies, even though analyses of Old English, Old Norse or Middle English will always be relevant. Earlier linguists or surname specialists like Richard McKinley would be astonished at what is now happening. This book will come to be seen as an important progenitor of a new historical subdiscipline, a ground-breaking interdisciplinary liaison, between history and genetics, one that may eclipse the boldness of any such humanities–scientific collaboration hitherto. It will be very interesting indeed to see how this builds up in the decades ahead, and how it affects understandings of belonging, identity, relatedness and inter-human empathy.