Y DNA: The Role of Surnames

From: Facts & Genes. Copyright (c) 2007 Family Tree DNA. All rights reserved.

The surname is an important component of analyzing Y DNA results, and sets the outer boundary for the time frame of a match.

Surnames were adopted in different countries at different times. For a long time, people were just known by their first name. As society became more complex, a system was needed to distinguish one person reliably and unambiguously from the next person.

A surname is typically a hereditary name borne by members of a single family and handed down from father to son. Thus, surnames contrast with given names, which identify individuals within the same family. It is characteristic of surnames that all members of a particular family normally have the same surname.

A surname therefore follows with the Y DNA result, which makes the testing of Y DNA a very powerful tool.

On the whole, the richer and more powerful classes tended to acquire surnames earlier than the working classes and the poor, while surnames were quicker to catch on in urban areas than in more sparsely populated rural areas.

Surnames were adopted in different areas at different times. In many parts of central and western Europe, hereditary surnames began to become fixed from the 12th century forward. The bulk of European surnames in countries such as England or France were formed in the 13th and 14th centuries. In some places, the process started earlier, and in some places the process continued into the 19th century. Overall, the norm is that in the 11th century people did not have surnames, and by the 15th century they did.

The process of adopting a surname was spread over time, and these surnames continued to evolve until the 1900’s when spelling was standardized.

Surname variants occurred during the evolution of the surname. There was no guide to the spellings of names, and those who recorded events, such as the clergy and registrars, attempted to reproduce phonetically the sounds they heard. The great majority of the population were illiterate and had no notion that any one spelling of their name was more ‘correct’ than any other.

Prior to the time surnames were adopted, men with the same Y DNA result were spread out over a geographic area due to migrations. In addition, invasions and wars often dispersed a Y DNA result significantly.

Many men had the same Y DNA result when surnames were adopted. It is currently impossible to predict how many men had the same Y chromosome DNA result at this time. Some Y DNA results were dying out, and others were abundant. Therefore, men with the same Y chromosome DNA result adopted different surnames. If there was a large population of the Y DNA result, such as with the haplogroup R1b, many different surnames would have been adopted for this Y DNA result.

As the database of Y DNA results at Family Tree DNA grows, almost everyone will eventually have Y DNA matches with other surnames. The primary reason for these matches is that multiple men with the same Y DNA result adopted different surnames during the time period when surnames were adopted. These men could have been in the same village, or in the same county, or perhaps migration had taken them to different countries.

In addition, two men with different surnames may have a matching Y DNA result due to convergence. Convergence is where you start with two different Y DNA results, in the past, and the results mutate over time, to where they match or are a close match today. The higher the population of a Y DNA result, the more opportunity there is for convergence to occur. Since Haplogroup R1b is the largest population group in Europe, matches with other surnames are very common. These matches are due to the large population of this Haplogroup that existed when surnames were adopted. Many different surnames were adopted, and convergence has occurred over time.

If we go back far enough in time, we are all related. The surname is used to establish a boundary for determining whether two people are related. If you match some one with a different surname, you are most likely related prior to the adoption of surnames.

In some cases, you could be related after the adoption of surnames, due to one of the following events occurring:

  • informal adoption, such as a widow remarries, and the children take the new surname
  • infidelity
  • illegitimate male child who takes the mother’s surname
  • adoption of a new surname, such as by preference or for inheritance
  • a pregnant woman marries a man with a different surname than the child she is carrying

Even though these events have occurred in the past, they were not the norm.

Pursuing a match with another surname should not be considered until both participants upgrade to 67 Markers to determine if the match still holds.

At this point, if the match still holds at 67 markers, a decision can be made as to whether to pursue the match with another surname. To avoid wasting time, there should be some evidence that one of the events above occurred. In making this decision, the place to start is to evaluate the evidence. Were the ancestors in the same location, at the same time? Was there a marriage by a widow who had children? Is there a use of alias in any records? Is there any evidence to support a match with another surname?

In most cases, there isn’t any evidence to support pursuing the match.

A Surname Project is a very valuable tool for family history research. The surname establishes the time period for determining if two people are related. Surname Projects can provide tremendous benefit for those who are researching their family history. DNA testing has a wide range of applications, from additional information to use in conjunction with the paper records for interpretation, to clues to find the ancestral homeland.

In addition, as a long term goal, a Surname Project can determine the number of points of origin of the surname. The Surname Project would combine DNA results with the techniques used to research surnames, and identify the ancestral location(s) or area(s) where the surname was adopted.

As you research your family tree, eventually you have to stop, because the written records end, or are sporadic. This could be the result of the destruction of records, such as due to a court house fire. Or, this could be the result of reaching the time period prior to consistent written records. For example, the time period before the adoption of Parish registers. Often your family tree will stop before you reach the start of Parish registers, because there is insufficient documentation to make a connection.

When your family tree ends, often there is still a long period of time between then and the adoption of surnames. For example, if your tree ends in the late 1700’s due to insufficient documentation, there is still 400 to 500 years between then and the adoption of surnames, depending on your ancestral country.

DNA testing can fill this 500 year gap. Imagine a situation years from now, where every family tree with your surname has tested. The data would then be available to determine whether your surname had a single or multiple points of origin. Combining this information with surname mapping, frequency distribution studies, and research in Medieval records would most likely enable the Surname Project to identify a geographic area as the ancestral homeland.

Our surname is a very important part of us, and DNA testing tells us about this surname. For example, did one man take on the surname, and all the descendants today are related, except for a few trees which are descendants of an informal adoption, and descendants of an illegitimate birth?

With DNA testing, we might also discover previously unknown variants. This could be very helpful for research, especially when records can’t be found, and later it is discovered that the records are actually there, but recorded with a previously unknown variant.

Surname dictionaries have been published and identify the origin for many surnames. The authors of these books used the tools available at the time. Never before have these experts or authors had the powerful tool of DNA testing available. There are many discoveries to be made with DNA testing. Most likely, DNA testing will prove that some long held beliefs about the origins of various surnames are incorrect.

By participating in a Y DNA Project, or sponsoring a participant if you are female, you are making a significant contribution to the knowledge about your surname. Even when your tree ends, you can still discover information about your origin.


From: Facts & Genes. Copyright (c) 2007 Family Tree DNA.  All rights reserved.