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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Surnames, DNA, and Family History
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on 28 September 2011
The latest advances in DNA analysis has much to offer those interested in genealogical research, particularly when combined with linguistic and historical approaches, as this scholarly yet readable book explains. It focuses on British names, tracing their origins to different parts of the British Isles and Europe, and casts fresh light on the ancient peopling of the British Isles. An overview of occupational by-names (familiar names) shows a medieval world populated by Brigendermakers (maker of body armour), Swerdslypers (scabbard maker), Swynnlibers (swine castrator) and Wandehaggers (woodman).

While the book has the flavour of an academic study, with mention of haplotypes and genetic drift, it is full of fascinating insights into family history research and genetic testing. The latter is now available commercially and many people undertaking it have a preconceived idea of where they -- or they want to -- come from; "the Vikings are by far the sexiest people to have had as ancestors" according to the authors.

Even in today's modern world, people still have a strong sense of wanting to 'belong', and, conclude the authors, "for many individuals their surname forms an essential part of who they are".
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on 26 February 2012
Anyone with an interest in the history of surnames and what DNA studies are revealing will find this a fascinating book, and it will also be a great interest to anyone concerned with the history of population in Britain. Its unifying theme is how the study of surnames, which used to be mainly based in the history of language, has been revolutionised by genealogy and DNA studies. These fields have had separate effects, but in the last 10 years or so have interacted strongly. The three authors are all leading experts in aspects of this. The individual chapters are not separately attributed, but the opening part develops the work that George Redmonds and David Hey have pioneered in the last 40 years, demonstrating from detailed examples how local history and genealogy can illuminate and correct conclusions from language studies about the history and meanings of classes of surnames and individual examples. There is an abrupt change half-way through, to a detailed description of how DNA works, and how Y chromosome and surname studies complement one-another. This is a difficult subject to explain, but I think that the authors (chiefly Turi King in this part presumably) do a very good job and do not shy away from dealing with important details. There are then fairly detailed summaries of key DNA studies, especially those which the University of Leicester team has been involved in, for individual names and populations, demonstrating the degree to which the Y chromosome haplotypes and surnames seem to be correlated in the British and Irish (but mainly English) populations. The book finishes with some tantalising glimpses of future possibilities, leaving me hoping that I live long enough to wonder at the results. The publisher (presumably) is also to be complemented at the quality of the illustrations, especially of the colour plates, which are important in understanding the arguments and examples. As I write this review I can't remember whether this book is available on Kindle. I am a Kindle fan, but I think this is a book which would be unsatisfactory in that medium, because of the need to refer repeatedly to the illustrations, and the importance of colour in them.
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on 6 March 2017
Still reading, but so far it is a fascinating well written book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 January 2014
The three authors of this book - George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey - all did their doctorates at Leicester University, but in widely differing subjects, thus allowing for the cross-disciplinary approach of this volume. Sir Alec Jeffreys is Professor of Genetics at the same university and has written the foreword. "This book," he says, "shows how DNA can identify clans of men sharing the same recent male ancestor, and can give tantalising clues about the age of a surname and levels of historical marital fidelity ... [but] the key message ... is the important of marrying history with genetics. So for those who would spend good money on sending a mouth swab off for Y chromosome testing ... I would strongly recommend that you read this book first."

The book has nine chapters. The twenty-page introduction, which from reading many other works by David Hey I assume to have been largely written by him, reviews previous research on surname formation and brings matters up to date. We read that one "clear conclusion is that, despite the increased mobility of modern times, most British families have still not moved far from the neighbourhoods that were familiar to their distant ancestors." The multi-disciplinary approach is again recommended: "it must be stressed that mapping surname distributions must be combined with other methods of enquiry," including linguistics, genealogy, local history and genetics.

Over the first few chapters we are taken on a journey that explores surname formation, their origins and development, their distribution and migration. Since both Hey and Redmonds have based much of their own research on their native Yorkshire and its adjacent counties, it is not surprising to find most examples - but by no means all - coming from that part of the country. Overall, the focus of the book is on England, but there are sometimes extensive forays into Wales, Scotland and Ireland too.

For those new to surname studies, much of what is written here will be new, but even I learned some surprising facts. For example, "The evidence shows quite clearly that whereas numerous hereditary surnames have become extinct ... others have proliferated to an extraordinary degree. Even more surprisingly, most of that proliferation appears to have taken place in a relatively circumscribed area of the Pennines. At its heart are the extensive parishes of Halifax and Rochdale." The authors demonstrate this by making comparisons with Cornwall and Sussex but they cannot come up with any definitive answer for its cause: as they say, "this phenomenon needs much more investigation."

I note that the presence of the surname `Singleton' in Sussex is thought to owe something to the Lancashire place-name, but the authors seem to have overlooked that Sussex too has a parish called Singleton. And when they write that, "Some other `Mc-` names were registered in and around southern ports - Plymouth, Portsmouth, Gravesend, and the Medway estuary - but few of these migrants had ventured far inland," I was struck by the fact that the reason for this may be because all are or were naval ports.

The first six chapters are, nevertheless, rigorous in their attempt to explain the latest research into surnames, using plenty of examples and delving deep into a number of other issues. Indeed, one case study about the Hepworths and the Black Death shows how such surname studies can also aid social and economic analysis.

Presumably written by Turi King, it is only the final three chapters that address the genetic element in any depth, and that is focussed on the Y chromosome in males. Whilst mention is made of the female equivalent of mitochondrial DNA, the subject is not further discussed. Whilst this is understandable in terms of surnames, the title of this book also includes the words `family history', and this reviewer wanted to learn more about this aspect.

Nevertheless we do learn that just as "a surname acts as a cultural marker of common ancestry, the Y chromosome should act as a biological marker." The text tried in some detail to tell this non-scientist how the tests all work (a glossary of terms would have been of assistance), but I appreciate it has to reduce what would be a whole textbook in itself down to a mere chapter. It lost me a little, but at least my intuitive understanding of family genetics received a welcome augmentation, and I can now understand what is meant of `haplogroups', `mutational events' and `genetic markers.'

Eight colour plates help illustrate the genetic results that are discussed, but a number of questions arose in the text that were not answered. (For example we are never given a list of all the surnames with their frequencies included in the study, so as to be able to draw our own conclusions.) The authors come up with some fascinating results, especially with regard to surname drift and surname ramifications, but "The bottom line is that while general trends exist, each surname has its own complex history."

Applying my own family tree's circumstances, I asked myself if genetics could provide an indication of the surname of my paternal grandfather's father. This grandfather was born illegitimate and took his mother's surname. The answer is that such analysis could provide such an indication. Another personal query was also answered, namely that deep-ancestry testing is problematical and not as clear-cut as some commercial companies may say.

This book, then, written by experts in their fields and as up-to-date as research presently has taken the links between surnames and genetics was of some personal use. But more than that, it offers a fascinating insight into what can be done and what may be able to be done in the future. On the cover of this book appears a blurb from historian and broadcaster Michael Wood: "Indispensable reading for anyone interested in their roots, this book offers noting less than a new perspective on British history." A little over-the-top perhaps, but not that far from the truth.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 February 2012
I'm not sure who the target audience is for this book as it combines genealogical and historical research with the latest DNA mapping techniques. I've got a biological sciences background and found myself having to concentrate very hard to understand the latter. The early chapters give an overview of how and when surnames came into use employing historical research into old documents. We then learn how researchers have tried to work out how surnames were chosen often using old maps. I found it fascinating how many surnames have retained their geographical distribution, relating to their original place of origin, even into the 20th century. Older methods of tracing surnames through genealogical methods are described and lastly the latest method of tracking surnames using DNA mapping on the male Y-chromosome is described and how the technique can give more precise information about the origins and distribution of a name and in some cases prove or disprove a link to an ancestor and settle whether family trees with the same surname are in fact related.
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on 30 June 2015
This is a fascinating account of the methodologies and interplay that surname studies, genealogy and DNA can bring to the understanding of our past. There is an excellent account of how we developed surnames ad hoc and slowly from the 12th to 14th centuries. It is interesting how many descriptive names given to people as by-names some of which later became adopted into surnames, predate the first recorded instance of the word in the OED. Most of these by-names were lost, though. The authors show how difficult it is to trace names back in time; words that have changed meaning over the centuries mean that to have a full understanding of surname development you do need to have a good knowledge of local history sources and suitable obscure language skills. With the availability of new sources, many former interpretations of family names now need to be revised, usually because the explanation is not so simple or obvious as hitherto accepted. Many surnames are now lost – indeed, computer modelling demonstrates that the chances of an individual surname lasting to permanence is not high.
The final chapters deal with the relatively new area of study of using DNA analysis as a way of confirming historical surname linkages. This is done by the male Y-chromosome inheritance, and can show, with various possible complications, evidence of genealogical links going back many generations to male ancestors. This element of the text is quite complicated and demands careful reading to understand the scientific arguments. This opens up all sorts of opportunities for historians and genealogists to trace surname and family origins further, and with a higher degree of confidence.
I was surprised that for a scholarly book there are no footnotes. Although there is a large bibliography there are occasions when a writer’s publication is referred to in the text, but because the writer has a number of books or journals listed, then it is not clear which is the specific source. There is some repetition in places, which is perhaps not entirely surprising in a book written by three authors.
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on 18 March 2012
Very interesting, if you're interested in the derivation of surnames it is really informative. and despite the obvious depth of research it is a very accessible and easy to read book. I thought it a better buy than books on surnames alone as it has a wider range of information.
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on 14 February 2012
This book makes interesting reading though a little disappointed in that so, relatively, few surnames included. However, it should help with discovering more re same.
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on 20 February 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It makes fascinating reading. With some biological background I managed to comprehend most of the genetic content and am wondering what tests I can employ in my background. The book really puts the history of surnames into a most interesting background
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on 25 October 2016
More surnames than DNA, as one might expect from the lead author. However, an interesting read.
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