Of Vikings and Romans
  DNA indicators of the ethnic origin of Michael Robert Ottersonmailto:genealogy@otterson.usshapeimage_3_link_0

Top: Image copyright The History Channel, “The Vikings” 2013.

Above: Images from someinterestingfacts.net, copyright unknown.


1. Roman insignia and official emblem of the city of Rome, with the letters SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus), indicating the “Senate and People of Rome.”

2. Remains of Hadrian’s Wall in modern-day County Durham, England. Emperor Hadrian built the then-formidable walled defences to protect the northern edge of the Roman Empire from hostile tribes.

3. The city of Bath, famous for its Roman ruins and archaeological treasures from Roman times.

DNA Research via Ancestry.com

The Otterson name, familiar in Scandinavia, is rare in England and uncommon in other parts of the world. Consequently, while all living memory and all documentary evidence so far ties the Sunderland Ottersons for three centuries firmly to England, there has long been speculation that in the more distant past our Otterson ancestors may have been part of the Viking invasions and settlements of Anglo-Saxon England that started at the end of the 8th Century AD. These invasions, beginning with a bloody coastal raid on the church and monastic community of Lindisfarne in northeast England in 793 AD, are an integral part of British history. The common prayers of the English coastal villages of the time is said to have included the sentiment, if not the actual phrase, “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine" (“From the fury of the Northmen, save us, O Lord”).

In July of 2013, speculation of Scandinavian origins for the Sunderland Ottersons, and perhaps also for other lines in our family history, was boosted by a significant piece of hard evidence for the first time. DNA research via Ancestry.com takes a signature of a person’s entire ethnicity, not just the father or mother’s line. According to Ancestry’s test of my own DNA, my ethnicity is comprised of 54% from the British Isles, 38% from Scandinavia, and - a surprising find - 8% from southern Europe, specifically Italy/Spain.

Since these indicators point to ancestral origins many hundreds or even thousands of years ago, we are still in the realm of speculation when we try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Nevertheless, some tentative conclusions beg to be drawn, and some intriguing questions are raised.  It now seems more plausible to believe that the Ottersons originated in Scandinavia and settled in north-east England some time in the distant past.  Whether they were mariners from Norway or Denmark who simply immigrated to England some time before the 1700s, or whether they were part of the massive Danish invasions and intermarriage in England from the 9th to the 11th centuries, we can’t know for sure. However, the earliest Otterson we have found in the northeast of England - in the early 1700s - was a farmer, not a sailor.  And such a high percentage of Scandinavian ethnicity (38%) does suggest something more substantial than a simple immigration of one or two families.

Roman Ancestry?

What of the Italian/Spanish DNA traces? The Romans occupied Britain before the Vikings - for 300 years. Julius Caesar invaded in 55 and 54 BC, but withdrew to attend to troubles across the English Channel in Gaul (France). Roman conquest is usually dated from the second half of the first century AD, and ended when the legions withdrew in 410 AD.

There was much intermarriage and settlement in Roman Britain during this period. Could these origins now be showing up in DNA results? Very likely, yes. There was even a Spanish Roman Legion in Britain, for an extended period which included part of Hadrian’s reign. The Ninth Legion (Legio Nona Hispana) is the stuff of legend. It was based in York in 108 AD but later disappeared from history. Its fate has been the subject of extensive research and even books and films.

After the Romans left, the vacuum was filled by invading Angles and Saxons from the continent, and Jutes from Denmark, until the unwelcome Viking wave of the 8th century. Thus, the ethnic mix of British descendants today is a highly complex amalgam of successive waves of invasion and settlement.

                                                                                                                                                                       Michael Otterson, July 2013

What Ancestry.com says about DNA accuracy

From the Ancestry.com website (copyright Ancestry.com)

Your genetic ethnicity is a prediction of your ethnic background. We take segments of your DNA and compare them to our ethnicity database, which contains one of the most comprehensive collections of DNA samples from people around the world. We group individuals with a well-established family history in a given place (British Isles for example) and then compare your DNA to each unique group in order to identify overlap. And as our database continues to grow, you could receive updates with new information.
DNA changes slightly with each generation, and over time any group of people that are relatively isolated (by geography or culture) develop unique genetic signatures that we can look for. It’s this aspect of DNA that makes our ethnicity predictions all possible.
We expect that over time, as the science continues to evolve, we'll be able to show more granular ethnic regions—even regions within a specific country.
When determining your genetic ethnicity, we hold our process and results to an extremely high standard of accuracy. Our lab’s analysis uses some of the most advanced equipment and techniques to measure and analyze your entire genome at over 700,000 locations or "markers". During the testing process, each DNA sample is held to a quality standard of at least a 98% call rate. Any results that don’t meet that standard may require a new DNA sample to be collected.
When reviewing your genetic ethnicity, here are some reasons why your results may be different than what you expected.
1. Your genetic ethnicity results go back hundreds of years. In some cases, the markers in your DNA may reveal ethnicities that go back hundreds, even a thousand years. This could differ from what you have documented in your family tree. So keep in mind that there may be some ethnic differences in your more recent family history as compared to generations ago.
Ethnic groups moved around. Because people move over time, (and when they do they take their DNA with them), a group may contribute DNA to other groups at different times. So ethnic groups can be defined by time and place—not just location. For example, if you have German or British ancestors in your family tree, it’s a possibility that your genetic ethnicity may be partly Scandinavian. The Viking invasions and conquests about a thousand years ago are likely responsible for occurrences of Scandinavian ethnicity throughout other regions. And there are similar examples for other ethnicities. With your results, we provide historical information describing migrations to and from the regions to give you a broader picture of the origins of your DNA.
 Your DNA is inherited through the generations. Half of your DNA is inherited from your mother and half from your father (roughly). However, each half is variable and can result in many unique combinations. Your parents inherited their DNA from their parents and passed portions of that DNA down to you. So when you factor that out over a few hundred years, you may share little or no DNA in common with a certain ancestor. So let’s say your father is half Italian, you could (in theory) inherit anywhere from fifty to zero percent Italian (based on the random shuffling of DNA with each generation). When you take that into account over a few generations you can see how traces of ethnicity can be lost over time.
So if you look at your family tree, it may indicate a pedigree-based ethnicity of 30% English, 20% Scandinavian, and 50% Italian (based on birth locations of your great-great-great grandparents). While this is one valid way to look at ethnicity (and in fact has been the only way until recently), DNA analysis can reveal the actual percentage of your DNA that is reflected by these ethnic groups. So your genetic-based ethnicity might reveal you are 40% British Isles, 15% Scandinavian, and 45% Southern European. Both measures are accurate and informative—but they are measuring different things.

Far left:  Roman soldiers ready to engage in battle. Scene from the TV series “Rome,” featured on BBC and HBO. Were soldiers like these responsible for modern traces of southern Mediterranean DNA?

Left:  Popularized, speculative film about the fate in Britain of the Ninth Legion (Spanish), based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.