by Peter Badham

Any historical endeavour relies on a range of materials for its evidence. In the widest sense of “documentary” these may include written forms which could be on stone, paper, clay or wood. It was not, of course, until printing developed that books were widely available with Caxton printing his first book in English in 1473. For topographical purposes, detailed and more reliable maps started to develop in the Tudor period. Essentially these were the only forms of evidence available until the 19th century. Fox Talbot completed his early photographic experiments in 1834. The first efforts in sound recording went back to 1860 when the Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, managed a recording of “Au Claire de la Lune”. The advent of television prompted the development of video recording with a tape system being introduced in 1951. Electronic formats for the recording of information in digital form developed alongside computing and especially with the advent of the personal computer these began to be available to all. The “electric pencil”, an early word-processing programme appeared in 1976. Digital-imaging techniques were being developed in the 1960s. These aids are now so entrenched that it is difficult to imagine family historians working without them. What would we do without the database, word processor and CD-ROM? Hats off to the pioneers who used up all those shoe boxes!

Similar processes have been happening in the archaeological world so that the reliance on careful excavation of remains, the analysis of other artefacts like wall paintings and pottery designs or the analysis of the history of languages has been supplemented by new techniques. Dating under the old technology was a more limited process. Documents were examined for internal consistency or anachronism in order to discover forgeries and basic analysis of paper and ink, and the consideration of the document's place in its archive was possible. The meticulous recording of digs to show the sequence of the remains and careful examination of pottery clays and firing techniques, for example, have been supplemented by modern technology, such as metal detection, ground radar and carbon and tree-ring dating.

DNA analysis is in many ways the modern technique which is doing most to rewrite history and in particular that of homo sapiens. DNA was in fact first isolated in 1869 by a Swiss physician, Freidrich Miescher. It was not until 1953, however, that Wilson and Crick, based on the work of others, managed to work out the structure of the double helix molecule of DNA. As we are now all familiar, this has led to a whole range of developments from genetic engineering, the examination of inherited diseases and a major extension of forensic science. The Human Genome Project got under way as recently as 1990 but already there is a build-up of databases holding information on genetic sequencing of human DNA and in particular of mitochondrial and Y chromosome markers. There is a steady and continuing understanding of the time-frame of mutations and this is what allows the recognition of subgroups of homo sapiens (haplogroups) and also provides us with the information that allows us to use DNA techniques in relation to our family history.

Unsurprisingly, the development of this powerful tool is leading to a rethink of some of the accepted ideas of human migration patterns. The Welsh roots of the Badham or Ap Adam surname give us a particular interest in the origins of the Celtic peoples and it is here that we can say that history is being rewritten. Nineteenth-century archaeology based on traditional archaeological techniques develop the theory that Celtic culture spread from central Europe and identified two centres at Halstatt and La Tène. We need, however, to remember that traditional archaeology depends much on random finds and be careful when we talk about the migration of cultural patterns, such as pottery and metalwork designs, as being necessarily the same as the migration of people.Essentially, the accepted view was that the Celts spread east and west from central Europe, however our understanding of the migration of haplogroups suggests different routes.1

The pattern of mutations producing the different haplogroups means that our time-scale can stretch back many thousands of years. A crucial time for what we now know as the British Isles was about 15,000 years ago at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum when the area was either under ice or was uninhabitable cold desert. Crucially this means that the British Isles were repopulated after that period. The alteration in sea levels also meant that at the time there were land bridges linking Ireland, southern Wales, England and the Continent. Put very simply, all the DNA evidence suggests that the people now inhabiting the areas we think of as Celtic, that is, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland2 were re-inhabited by an Atlantic coast migration from the Iberian peninsula and in particular from the area we now know as the Basque country. Similarly, the more eastern areas were repopulated from other genetic groups arriving from a more south-easterly direction. The implication of this is that in terms of the genetic population in particular the idea that the whole of England and Wales was occupied by Britons, who were then pushed to the western edge by subsequent invasions, needs reconsidering. As an example, DNA studies in north-eastern England show that the Viking intrusions contributed only six per cent to the present gene pool in that area. It seems likely that invasion may change the power structure but not massively change the indigenous gene pool.

Map: The present coastline of the British Isles and Europe with an approximate overlay of the Last Glacial Maximum of about 15,000 years ago. The direction of the major repopulation routes of Haplogroups “R1b” and “I” is also indicated.

The archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, anticipated some of this re-evaluation and to some extent he based this on the migration of metal workers up the Atlantic seaboard. The DNA evidence allows us to recognise that the Atlantic seaboard movements were much older than previously thought and that the migration of these metal workers and of other cultural influences can now be seen as following the repopulation routes. Some of our cultural attitudes may well be much more deeply rooted than we thought and may have reappeared even in more recent migrations, such as that of Christianity into Wales. We can see the Welsh resistance to domination by the Bishop of Canterbury as reflecting this much earlier separate origin of the peoples populating Wales and England. No doubt developing work will give us more pause for thought.

What I have described above is essentially the big picture, however, the availability of Y chromosome data in a form that can be used for genealogical research allows us to work in a more recent time-frame. For a one-name society where we may be interested in a time-span of 700 years or more, we cannot ignore the possibilities offered.


  1. For a detailed exposition see The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer (Constable and Robinson 2007, paperback)
  2. Galicia (N.W. Spain) is also Celtic! Brittany’s Finistère, Cornwall’s Lands End, and Galicia’s Finisterre (Fistera in Gallego the language of Galicia) are all desolate cliff tops “at the end of the world”. Galicia, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland all have a tradition of bagpipes and energetic dancing too! (Ed.)