Ötzi the Iceman

(updated in August 2014 with the kind assistance of Rolf Langland, coordinator of the G-L497 project)

Ever since DNA tests have been available commercially in the late 1990s, I have been fascinated by genetics, and the way this cutting-edge science can revolutionise what we know about our family origins.  I have had my own genes tested, using the firm www.familytreedna.com, and have not been disappointed.

Geoff Swinfield, Bennett Greenspan (founder of FamilyTreeDNA) and myself at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show in 2011. Through the firm’s testing, Geoff and I know we are distant relations.

My male line genetic haplogroup is G(M201). This is thought (as of 2014) to have appeared in south-west Asia about 40,000 years ago. It is very common in the Urals, and also in Turkey and the Middle East, the area from which metal-working first spread into Europe. It is believed to have come into Europe from this area. Testing of ancient human remains indicate that haplotype-G also includes some of the earliest Neolithic farmers to live in Europe. They arrived in Europe long before surnames arose, and before populations settled down into their modern groupings. Haplogroup G is very rare in Europe comprising only  about 2-5% of the current population.

Every haplogroup has subbranches, and indeed the more tests are taken, the more new subgroups and thus subbranches of the family tree are being discovered. G(M201) is no exception. Under the most recent, 2013 reorganisation of the G(M201) haplotree, I belong to the branch of the G(M201) tree coded G2a2b2a1b(L497).  This L497 marker is thought to have appeared about 8,000 years ago and is found mainly in Western and Central Europe – and it is very rare. In 2014 FamilyTreeDNA very kindly tested me for the recently discovered sub-groups of L947 and I find that I belong to a sub-sub (etc) group termed G-CTS4803, which probably emerged about 3,100 years ago.  

A few years ago, I was astonished to find that Dr Geoff Swinfield, a fellow professional genealogist, one of my former teachers and lectures in Canterbury, belonged to haplogroup G as well. Under current thinking, he is also in my very unusual sub-group, G2a2b2a1b(L497). Despite his male-line ancestry being English, and mine being German, we were cousins and had the same distant male-line ancestor in common. My ancestors lived in north-east Germany until they came to London in 1832. Geoff is not in  CTS4803, so that is where our ancestral lines diverge: it seems likely that Geoff’s had come from Germany too, probably as part of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, one and a half thousand years ago.

Often, when it comes to genetic relationships, it is as much as one can say that, somewhere back in the very distant past, there was a man who carried one’s genes. To be able to put a face to that carrier is a rare thing indeed. We cannot – but we can come surprisingly close to being able to do so.

The frozen corpse of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ was found in the Ötzal Alps, on the Austrian-Italian border, in 1991. He had lived and died about 5,300 years ago. He carried a copper axe, and sets the earliest date for the arrival of the Chalcolithic period, the ‘age of copper’, in Europe. The technology was brought from Asia into Europe by travelling metal-workers, perhaps including Ötzi himself, and ushered in the decline and end of the Stone Age.

Ötzi’s female-line genetic haplotype (K) has been known for some years, but in 2011 Dr Eduard Egarter Vigl, chief pathologist at General Regional Hospital in Bolzano, who oversees the conservation of the remains, revealed that Ötzi’s male-line genetic haplotype. It is G2a2ab1(L91) (the old, pre-2013 classification was G2a4 (L91).

Otzi the Iceman, my confirmed male-line genetic cousin

This came as extraordinary news to Geoff and myself.  The G2 haplotype spread into Europe long before surnames arose, and before populations settled down into their modern national groupings.  About 4,000 years ago, long before they acquired their surnames in England and Germany respectively, Geoff’s male-line ancestor must have been a brother to mine.  But several thousand years earlier, our common ancestor had a brother who was the male-line ancestor of Ötzi.