WERE SMITHSONS VIKINGS ONCE?

The Smithsons from Weardley join the DNA revolution.

Fragment of an Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture from Otley on the River Wharfe, 11 kms from Weardley, depicting a warrior with sword. Copyright: (Otley 6a), Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, University of Durham; photographer: K. P. Jukes and D. J. Craig.

It is unfortunate that a Viking gene does not exist. It might restrain YouTube vloggers who enthusiastically announce to the world: ‘Hey, I’ve just got my AncestryDNA results and I’ve discovered I’m a Viking!’. It would be of greater value, however, if it could clear up a genetic mystery that involves the Smithsons from Weardley. This mystery revolves around the relatively sudden appearance of a group of genetically related people, that included ancestors of the Smithsons from Weardley, across discreet areas of Scotland, England, Sweden, Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the Orkney Islands and in Normandy during the early medieval period known as the Viking Age.

The idea that a family from Weardley, West Riding of Yorkshire, would somehow be connected to Vikings is not altogether surprising. During the Viking Age, Yorkshire was part of the Danelaw, a portion of England dominated by invading Scandinavians. Their influence is apparent in the Old Norse words embedded in the Yorkshire landscape: a stream in Yorkshire is called a ‘beck’ – a corruption of the Old Norse word for stream, bekkr; and local place names ending in ‘-by’, such as Kearby and Netherby near Weardley, hark back to Anglo-Scandinavian farm-holdings. Even the Smithson surname may have a Scandinavian connection. In 1906, the Smithson family historian George Smithson raised the possibility that the surname Smithson, which is ‘principally and originally found in Yorkshire, and appears throughout the three Ridings’, could either be of ‘Anglo-Saxon or Norse origin’.1 Smithson is a patronymic surname, meaning that it is derived from a male ancestor. Patronymic ‘-son’ surnames are particularly common in Yorkshire, as well as in Scandinavia, and this is seen by some as an instance of Scandinavian influence in northern England.2 Indeed, Scandinavian-influenced naming forms are noticeable in the 1379 Subsidy (Poll Tax) Rolls for the Smithsons’ parish of Harewood: for example, the names Johannes Graynesoń and Matilda Annotsoń Doghter (Matilda, Annot’s son’s daughter). Yet, this could all be dismissed as rather vague and coincidental for Smithson family history had it not been for recent discoveries that give some support to the proposition that the emergence of the Smithsons from Weardley was linked to the arrival of the Vikings in the early medieval period.

That we are even in a position to discuss the early ancestry of the Smithsons, long before they appear in written records, is due to a knowledge revolution that has seen new genetic techniques brought to the study of the human past. All humans carry within them, in their DNA, a history. It is a story written in a genetic language that, having been translated by science, has lately revealed much concerning ancient human populations and promises further discoveries. There has been a hint of democracy in this archaeogenetic revolution. Everyday people are, in their own modest ways, driving research and applying it to reach an understanding of their place, their little thread of DNA, in the human tapestry. Genetic techniques that have mapped humanity’s ancient odysseys are now providing evidence of population relationships and movements on the edge of historical time. In so doing, they have brought the ancestors of the Smithsons from Weardley out of the shadows and placed them in a place at a time.

A Smithson is Tested

Sketch of a portion of the DNA molecule. Source: Forluvoft. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Every story must have a beginning and, in the search for a family’s origins, genealogy provides a methodology: tracing a line of descent from the present into the past using documents. Unfortunately, the documented trail sometimes becomes faint or disappears entirely. DNA testing can be a tool for breaking through such ‘brickwalls’. This was the initial purpose of testing Smithson DNA.

The DNA molecule is composed of two phosphate strands, twisting in a double helix shape, linked together by nucleotides: Adenine (A) always paired with Thymine (T) and Cytosine (C) always paired with Guanine (G). The order of these provides the genetic code of a human. The DNA molecule is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. Humans of both sexes share 44 chromosomes (autosomes) plus two gender chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes and men have one X and one Y chromosome – giving humans a total of 46 or 23 pairs of chromosomes. It was expected that the Y chromosome would offer the necessary information to breach the Smithson brickwall.

The Y chromosome is passed virtually unchanged down the male line, from father to son, so a Y-DNA test would navigate the surname line, seeking out repeating patterns (short tandem repeats or STRs) in DNA which could match those of related Smithsons who had also tested. Hopefully, this would provide information to reconstruct the broken Smithson line. Another type of test, an autosomal DNA test of the type widely marketed by the Ancestry company, was not chosen at that time. Autosomal DNA tests trace both the male and the female lines of descent of an individual. They are most useful in determining relatedness back five or so generations.3 Unfortunately, this particular brickwall was back much further in the past. Nevertheless, such a test was employed later to confirm the Smithson genetic line within the five-generation timeframe.

Diagram representing a section of three men’s DNA in which a particular group of nucleotides (termed a marker) are repeated. These are known as Short Tandem Repeats or STRs. In contrast, a SNP or Single Nucleotide Polymorphism is a unique mutation or change in the Y DNA sequence at a specific location. In Tom’s case, SNP T indicates a different haplogroup to that of Dick and Harry (SNP A). (after Mark A Jobling, Surnames, Genes and the History of Britain).

As it turned out, the brickwall was finally breached by the discovery of further documents. What the Y-DNA test did reveal, however, was a much deeper Smithson past – beyond the reach of documents, beyond surnames and beyond History itself. As the Y chromosome is passed down the male line, hiccups occur – changes or mutations in the genetic message. Some of these become established, creating new branches in the male lineage. These mutations are not mere cellular events labelled with bizarre assemblages of letters and numbers, they were people – individuals who were progenitors of new lines of descent called haplogroups. The Y-DNA test predicted the Smithsons’ position on a haplogroup or phylogenetic tree – on a branch derived from an ancient individual, R-M269 (or R1b1a1a2), who lived around 6,500 years ago in western Eurasia. Haplogroup R would go on to dominate Europe’s genetic landscape. To reach further back and explore that story, SNP (Single-Nucleotide Polymorphism) testing was required. By testing for variations at a certain point in a gene, the Smithsons’ place in the known R haplogroup tree could be located with greater accuracy, perhaps establishing their own branch or line of descent.

The results of the Big Y Next Generation Sequencing Test established that the Smithson sample belonged to a sub-clade (branch) of haplogroup R-M269 known as R1b-P312 and specifically to one of its largest divisions, R-DF27. The descendants of these individuals, P312 and DF27, played a key role in transforming Europe.

A New Europe

Around 5000 years ago, Europe experienced a major population upheaval. Europe at this time was dominated by farming communities, descendants of peoples who had entered Europe from the Near East, via Greece, around 9,000 years ago bringing the new agricultural technology with them. After some thousands of years of keeping aloof, they had mixed genetically with the dark-skinned, blue-eyed Western Hunter Gatherers who had previously populated Europe. As a result, around 5000 years ago, hunter gatherers of the old ancestry could only be found in isolated areas of northern Europe.4 Some of today’s most well-known archaeological sites and discoveries belong roughly to this period: for example, Stonehenge in England and the frozen body of Otzi, the iceman of the Alps.

Schematic representation of the migration undertaken by Smithson ancestors from the Eurasian steppes into Europe. Dots show the locations of DNA tested ancient remains reported until 2018. R1b-P310 gave rise to Smithson ancestor R1b-P312 (grey dots) and R1b-P312-DF27. The approximate ancient (2-3rd millenium BC) range of Smithson haplogroup R1b-P312 is coloured yellow.

At this juncture, a new wave of people entered Europe from the steppes above the Black and Caspian Seas. Identified collectively today as the Yamnaya, these steppe dwellers of western Eurasia were themselves a mixture – of Eastern and Caucasian Hunter Gatherers who had developed a horse and wagon culture based on herding. These steppe people spread into northern and central Europe. By 4,300 years ago, possibly aided by an epidemic similar to the Black Death, steppe people had genetically displaced 70% of the farmer- hunter-gatherer Y-DNA in central Europe.5 It is possible that the Smithson ancestor R1b-P312 was part of the initial wave of migrants. Among his descendants was Smithson ancestor R-DF27, most probably born soon after his kin had arrived in Europe.

In modern populations, R-DF27 is most common in the Iberian Peninsula. However, it is definitely not confined to that area today and certainly not in the distant past. Indeed, the oldest DF-27 individual identified by ancient DNA analysis to date (2019) was living at modern-day Quedlinburg, on the River Bode in north-central Germany, around 4,300 years ago. Known as I0806, this man exemplified the genetic and cultural mixing that took place in Europe after the influx of steppe peoples. He had paternal steppe ancestry, but maternal Baltic/Eastern Hunter Gatherer ancestry. He was buried in a single grave with a stone battle axe and a pot, known as a bell beaker. The battle-axe was characteristic of the Corded Ware culture, strongly associated with the influx of steppe peoples. The Corded Ware Culture had soon blended with a northern European culture that buried its dead in single graves rather than the earlier, often communal, semi-subterranean structures. On the other hand, the bell beaker belonged to a culture that emerged in the Iberian Peninsula and was adopted by northern Europeans. The bell beaker culture was carried into Britain by a further expansion of people with steppe-related ancestry that replaced about 90% of the island’s Y-DNA ancestry by around 2,200 BC.6

European cultures of the third millennium BC. (After Oliver Lemercier, Think and Act. Local Data and Global Perspectives in Bell Beaker Archaeology JNA 20, 2018S, 77-96 [doi 10.12766/jna.2018S.5]. Corded ware pot and axes: Estonian History Museum – Terker,m Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Bell beaker: British Museum, author photo.)

If we were to look for ancient DNA that approaches more closely that of our Smithsons, it could be represented in a 30-45-year-old man who died and was buried with several other related individuals near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, around 4300 years ago. Known today as I2416 or, more popularly, as one of the Boscombe Bowmen because of the flint arrowheads found in their grave, he was a near descendant of the first beaker migrants into Britain. He had some steppe ancestry, but more of his DNA came from southern parts. DNA testing indicated that he was positive for R1b-P310 and possibly for the SNP FGC11381. The SNP FGC11381 lies relatively close to the Smithsons on the Y-R haplogroup tree. Unfortunately, there are difficulties with analysing this individual’s DNA and the FGC11381 result is uncertain.7 Yet, even if the possibilities of I2416’s genetics are confirmed, I2416 seems not to have established our genetic line in Britain. Exactly where our Smithson R-DF27 ancestry underwent its further development is one part of our ancestral mystery. The other part of the mystery is how and why our ancestors seemed to have suddenly appeared in various parts of the British Isles and Ireland in the early Middle Ages.

Rox2 and the Smithsons

What was the most intriguing aspect of the Smithson BigY test was that it placed the family in a fascinating sub-clade of DF27 known as Rox2. The story of Rox2 soon incorporated the story of the Smithsons from Weardley.

In 2005, amateur geneticists Jim Turner and Chris Corner postulated the existence of a yDNA cluster, a group of present-day people sharing similar Y-STR results. Today, Chris maintains a website dedicated to providing up-to-date information on the cluster that came to be nicknamed ‘Rox2’. Rox was a Basque name used by Stephen Oppenheimer in his writings on prehistory and genetics, but no particular geographical or historical significance is attached to the Rox2 cluster’s name as used today.8 The Rox2 cluster was formed well before the adoption of surnames, so the fact that these matches very often bear different surnames is of limited consequence. R-DF27 was only identified in genetic testing in 2012 and, in the two years following, a network of subclades below DF27 were uncovered by further SNP testing. Among these was the subclade Z2571 and assigned below it was a long block of SNPs underpinning the Rox2 cluster that arose around 4,300 years ago.9 In June 2015, branches or subclades that developed around 1250 years ago were identified below the Rox2 block10 and in November our Smithson DNA sample was assigned to one of these, lately bearing the identifier BY21591 (Figure B).

Figure A. The Rox2 phylogenetic tree – a reconstruction of our lineage using genetics. Source: Alex Williamson, The Big Tree, October 2019; Chris Corner, ‘Geographical Distribution’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster, https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.

An examination of the Rox2 phylogenetic tree in Figure A (a phylogenetic tree is a reconstruction of a lineage using genetics) shows the long block of SNPs, indications of genetic mutations, stretching back to the Z2571 ancestor. This Rox2 block of SNPs represents actual people in the past and their genetic events but devoid of any known descendant branches that would provide a chronological order and enable age estimations.  There have been breakthroughs. In May 1916, a SNP (FGC11380) from the block was identified in a hobbyist’s DNA sample, indicating that a descendant branch was created about 4,500 years ago. Then came the news of the possible presence of another SNP from this block, FGC11381, in DNA extracted from I2416, the Boscombe Bowman.11

Figure B. The Rox2 FGC-11414 family tree, showing the position of the Smithson SNP BY21591. From Alex Williamson’s The Big Tree, October 2019.

It is hoped that further branches may emerge from hobbyist testing to provide some idea of the history of the Rox2 line and the geographic origin of the Rox2 founder – whether within the British Isles, Ireland or abroad. Unfortunately, this may be challenging. Firstly, because low numbers of Y-DNA tests are undertaken in many parts of Europe. Secondly, because any branches from the Rox2 block that were formed in the past may have become extinct causing us to rely on the testing of ancient human remains. If discoveries are not made during the current surge in ancient DNA testing, it will not augur well for the reconstruction of Rox2’s chain of SNPs.

Extinction may have been a constant threat facing the Rox2 descendant line during the last thousand years or so. It is likely that the Rox2 block of SNPs represents a ‘genetic bottleneck’. Genetic bottlenecks are characterised by a founding event – an ancestor bearing a mutation – and subsequent near-extinction followed by a demographic expansion. The phenomenon has been likened to a sapling struggling to grow in a forest, developing a long, slender stem before breaching the forest canopy and sending out a host of branches. The near-extinction is usually due to a severe reduction in population and/or a long period of minimal population growth resulting in a limited passing-on of the mutation.

Alternatively, the bottleneck phenomenon can also emerge in modern hobbyist databases as a consequence of an individual in the relatively recent past migrating from one location to a distant locality where a substantial founding event (the birth of many sons) occurred.12 This may well have been the case for Rox2. On the basis of present estimations, the cluster experienced a demographic expansion in the 8th century AD, primarily in the British Isles. Around that time, the Rox2 founder produced at least nine closely related ‘sons’ or descendants – the ancestors of all present-day Rox2 matches. These ‘brothers’ produced nine parallel lineages – a ‘star cluster’ of nine different sub-branches born at a similar time.13

Theories proliferate in the absence of firm evidence and several have been advanced to explain this sudden expansion of the Rox2 line in the British Isles, Ireland, Normandy and Scandinavia. Some point to a founder originating in Scotland14 while Scandinavia has been suspected for some time.15 This article aims to add to the speculation and advance a theory for the origin of the Rox2 family that rests upon the latest dating of the founding and expansion of the Rox2 cluster and our understanding of its rapid geographical distribution.

A Question of Time

Figure C. A timeline of events in the development of the Rox2 cluster and the Scandinavian expansion of the Viking Age. Dates for the foundation and expansion of the cluster are from Chris Corner (Nov 2019) and are frequently revised as new test results are received.

It is the time estimation of the founding and expansion of the Rox2 cluster that provides a crucial key to understanding the protohistory of our Smithson family. In 2018, using various dating techniques on data available at the time, amateur geneticist Chris Corner calculated that, on the basis of mutation rates, the Rox2 founder lived around AD 750-804 with the expansion of the lineage occurring around AD 854-919. He concluded and cautioned that:

The different methods [of dating] arrive at a broadly similar time frame. The dates are not set in stone and alter slightly as each new yDNA result is added to the calculations. All estimates, including those from various yDNA companies, are painted with a very broad brush.16

Nevertheless, at this stage, the date suggested for the foundation of the Rox2 cluster falls in the final decades of the late Germanic Iron Age (referred to as the Vendal Period in Sweden). The Germanic Iron Age was followed by the Viking Age. The Viking Age – the expansion of Scandinavian influence over substantial parts of Western Europe and the North Atlantic – was the most important historical development affecting all the Rox2 countries in the late 8th and the 9th centuries AD. The chronological relationship between the development of Rox2 and Scandinavian expansion is shown in Figure C.

A Question of Place

Having established a time frame for the foundation and expansion of the Rox2 cluster, its geographical distribution needs to be considered. The earliest known ancestors (EKAs) of modern Rox2 testees are located in areas of central Scotland, northern England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, near the Lincolnshire coast and in southern England. Beyond the British Isles and Ireland, Rox2 EKA groupings are found on the Baltic Coasts of Northern Sweden with isolated matches in Norway and on the Finnish coast. A scatter of Rox2 EKAs occur in southern Ireland with isolated matches in the Orkney Islands and Normandy, France. (Figure D and E).

Figure D. Distribution of Rox2 Earliest Known Ancestors (EKAs) in Scandinavia. After Chris Corner, 2019.


Figure E. Distribution of EKAs of confirmed or potential Rox2 matches in the British Isles and Ireland. After Chris Corner, December 2017.

It must be acknowledged that the graphic representation of the homelands of the Rox2 EKAs in Figure E has limitations. The figure shows the locations of confirmed or potential Rox2 EKAs as established by their tested descendants using conventional genealogical and historical research. Not all Rox2 EKAs are plotted because their precise homelands are unknown and, of course, we are only aware of those Rox2 descendants who have been tested. This raises the issue of bias our sample. The majority of those undertaking Y-DNA genealogical testing (as opposed to the more popular autosomal testing undertaken by the majority of consumers) have been voluntary hobbyists, primarily from North America. Limited numbers of Europeans have tested – the Swedish being most enthusiastic, while France has banned DNA testing. On the other hand, one could argue that immigration to North America has, for all intents and purposes, roughly sampled a broad range of European populations.

Another problem with Figure E is that it provides the geographical location of Rox2 EKAs some 700 years or later after the Rox2 expansion. If we are to extrapolate from this data into the past, we must assume a limited movement of Rox2 descendant families during that time interval. Archaeogenetics has shown that the genetic composition of modern populations is commonly not reflective of the populations that lived in the same areas in the past. However, the emergence of Rox2 descendant families is measured in hundreds of years, not the thousands of years generally mapped by archaeogenetics. Indeed, in terms of Britain, the problem of post-Roman and Industrial Revolution population movement may not be insurmountable. The genetic mapping project, People of the British Isles (PoBI), launched in 2004 applied a methodology to counter the problem of population movement. They sought volunteers whose

all four grandparents were born in the same rural area [to] maximise the probability of recruiting individuals whose families have been stable inhabitants of the area for many generations, as most recent migration has been into larger towns and cities.17

The People of the British Isles project, with less reach into the past than that often achieved by the identification of Rox2 EKAs, claimed results that indicated ‘a remarkable stability of the British people over quite long periods of time’.18

Figure F. Map of approximate locations of confirmed or potential Rox2 EKAs in the British Isles and Ireland, excluding Northern Ireland due to known migration during the later medieval and early modern periods.

Such apparent stability has demonstrably not been the situation in all geographical areas occupied by Rox2 EKAs, with Ireland being a particular case in point. There has been a long history of population movement between Ireland and Scotland and a well-known episode was the foundation of the kingdom of Dál Riata, carved out from Pictish lands by the Scoti of northern Ireland in the late 6th to early 7th centuries AD. The Rox2 family of MacAuley (with various spellings) of Northern Ireland undertook a move in the opposite direction. From the 14th century, MacAuleys accompanied the MacDonnells from Scotland to Antrim in northern Ireland and MacAuley migration continued during the 17th century Plantation of Ulster.19 In view of the scale of this relatively modern migration, the Rox2 Ulster EKAs need (with sincere apologies) to be retired from our investigation of the 8th – 9th century expansion of Rox2 – see Figure F. Other instances of modern population movement, from Sweden into Finland and from the Irish counties at the mouth of the River Shannon into Cork in Ireland, also need to be kept in mind.20

While acknowledging these qualifications, what is nonetheless apparent from Figures E and F is that Rox2 EKAs are not randomly distributed across the British Isles and Ireland, or across any one of the several historical realms of the British Isles and Ireland, as one would expect to be the case if Rox2 had a more-than two-thousand-year presence in those lands. Instead, the Rox2 EKAs are discretely clustered in separate regions that, at the time of Rox2’s expansion, were often quite foreign to each other. It is difficult to imagine a genetic flow from any one of these Rox2 regions to all of the others in the 8th and 9th centuries. Unless, of course, there was an agency that influenced all the regions equally. That agency, according to the theory advanced in this article, were the Scandinavians, popularly known as the Vikings.

The Vikings Unmasked.

Before addressing our initial question: ‘Were the Smithson ancestors Vikings once?’, we must come to grips with the term ‘Viking’. In modern usage, the term Viking is widely used to describe the Scandinavian peoples of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and their offshoots, such as Iceland, in a particular period – the Scandinavian expansionist period extending roughly from AD 793 to 1066 – a time when there existed no common word for Scandinavian identity.21 In those times, however, the term Viking (víkingr) specifically referred to a raider – the name probably derives from the Old Norse word vik meaning bay or inlet, favoured haunts of pirates. It is important to recognise that raiding was only one activity undertaken by Scandinavian adventurers, as a description of one in a 13th century Icelandic saga shows:

‘Thorleik Hoskuldson had been a great sea-going merchant … before he settled down as a farmer. He had also been on Viking raids, where he proved himself a man of courage’.22

That having been clarified, were the Smithson R1b ancestors Viking Age Scandinavians? If one accepted the generally-held genetic genealogical rule-of-thumb, that haplogroups R1a and I1 are indicators of Scandinavian ancestry,23 one would be inclined to answer in the negative. However, things Scandinavian in this period were not so clear-cut. A study, The Population Genomics of the Viking World, published in 201924 found that 19% of the Viking Age human remains tested belonged to haplogroup R1b and four of the 443 remains were of an early branch of DF27.25 Furthermore, evidence from genetic and isotope analyses of Viking Age human remains suggest that Viking bands could incorporate non-Scandinavians with whom they came into contact. This raised questions concerning Scandinavian – and Viking – identity for the authors of the study:

… we observe foreign gene flow from the south and east into Scandinavia, starting in the Iron Age, and continuing throughout the duration of the Viking period from an increasing number of sources. Our findings also contradict the myth of the Vikings as peoples of pure local Scandinavian ancestry.26

Map of Viking Age settlement and exploration, as presented in Wikipedia, 2019. Source: en:User:Bogdangiusca, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It is important to recognise the geographical reach of the Viking World. Its early contact with northern European neighbours in Germany, Frisia and the Baltic rapidly expanded to encompass lands extending from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East to Greenland and North America, and from the Arctic fringe to the Mediterranean Sea. Trade brought foreign merchants into the Scandinavian lands. In one case, in 808, the Danish king Gudfred destroyed the Slavic-Scandinavian trading town of Reric in North Germany and forcibly moved all its tradesfolk and craftsmen to the Danish trading centre of Hedeby.27 Most importantly, the Viking slave trade shifted substantial numbers of people from the British Isles and Ireland northwards, The trade reached as far east as Baghdad and even brought a handful of Africans to Ireland.28

A good deal of Viking Age genetic flow into the Scandinavian World surely came with slaves (or thralls, as the Vikings called them). Viking raiders could make one-off fortunes by pillaging monasteries and civil centres or by extracting ransoms from beleaguered kingdoms, but the high value rewards from everyday raids would have been slaves. Historical sources make plain the inhumanity of slavery and the slave trade in Viking society: of concubinage, of slaves used as human sacrifice and of recalcitrant slaves put to death. On the other hand, Scandinavian slavery had some unique features. The Icelandic Laxdala Saga relates the story of Olaf (the Peacock) Hoskuldsson, son of an Irish slave woman and an Icelander, who became a wealthy landowner and chieftain; and tell of the favour shown by the pioneering Viking woman settler, Unn (the Deep-Minded) Ketilsdóttir, to some of her slaves. Unn had moved from Viking-held lands in Scotland to take up land in Iceland. As a person of high status in Viking society, she required a landed clientēla and proceeded to distribute farms to her followers. Four of the five thus favoured were slaves; one, possibly two, were Scottish. The Icelandic families of two of these freed-slaves were recorded in the Icelandic sagas and one grand-daughter was the wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who attempted to settle North America. A neighbouring wealthy farmer also had a number of slaves in his household and it was related that one was freed and travelled to Norway before settling as a ‘man of mettle’ in Denmark.29

While outsiders could be incorporated into Viking society, Viking ways could be incorporated into societies with which they had contact. As the authors of the 2019 study observed:

in some cases, localities seem to have taken up Viking culture while incorporating little to no Scandinavian ancestry components, suggesting that the “Viking” identity was not always necessarily associated with Scandinavian genetic ancestry.30

One of the best-known examples of this blending were the Gall-Goídil, raiders described by a contemporary Irish annalist as ‘Gaels [Gaelic-speakers of Irish or Scottish origin] and foster-children of the Vikings, and sometimes they are even called Vikings’, who rapaciously descended upon Ireland in the mid9th century, probably from Scotland.31

Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, made of walrus ivory, probably in Norway in the 12 century AD. This area was colonised by the Vikings and acted as a springboard for further expansion into Scotland and Ireland. British Museum, author photo.

These observations have relevance when we consider where the Rox2 founder, and possibly the Rox2 subclade, originated. The timing and geography of Rox2 expansion points to its close association with Viking Age expansion. This was not necessarily from a point of origin in Norway, Sweden or Denmark. It is equally possible that the Rox2 homeland lay in areas strongly influenced by the Scandinavians, especially northern Germany and the Baltic and North Sea littoral. Unlike the Gall-Goídil, it is suggested that Rox2 did not originate in the British Isles and Ireland. The discrete clustering of Rox2 Earliest Known Ancestors in the several kingdoms of the British Isles and Ireland has already been offered here as an indication of a recent introduction from an outside source. The long Rox2 bottleneck has led Chris Corner to argue that:

If Rox2’s ancestors were living and having children in Britain since the mid-third millennium BC, the extremely long bottleneck (c. 2350 BC – 750 AD), evident in the British Isles/Ireland databases, would not exist32

and to pose a fundamental question:

… why did they leave no trace in the British Isles and Ireland until the Early Medieval period – in an area of Europe that currently has the highest hobbyist yDNA coverage in the world?33

Whether from Scandinavia or from Scandinavian-influenced lands, it is argued here that the Smithson Rox2 ancestors were carried into specific regions of the British Isles on a Scandinavian tide. But this would have been only the start of the Rox2 drama.  Almost three centuries of contact between the Vikings and the peoples of the British Isles and Ireland resulted in significant acculturation and intermarriage.34 Viking ancestors gave rise to the Anglo-Scandinavians of England and the Norse-Gaels of Scotland and Ireland and the alignment of Rox2 individuals with these groups would undoubtedly be requisite to the spread of Rox2 throughout the British Isles and Ireland.

Rox2 Vikings?

Having made the case for a Scandinavian-Rox2 connection, it is surprising that there is a less than perfect correlation between the mapped locations of Rox2 EKAs and areas of Scandinavian settlement in Britain (Figure G). Apart from one Rox2 EKA, no Rox2 has yet been confidently recorded from the Scandinavian-dominated Hebrides and Northern Isles, the north and upper north-western coast of Scotland or from Viking East Anglia in England. Substantial numbers of Rox2 EKAs are clustered outside of those regions in the British Isles generally regarded as areas of possible Scandinavian settlement or influence.

Figure H. Rox2 locations and the distribution of archaeological finds of all-over-corded pottery, an indication of an ancient northern European trade route system in the British Isles that endured into the Viking period. (AOC locations from S. Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British, 2012, p.265).


Figure G. Rox2 EKA locations in the British Isles (excluding Northern Ireland) and areas with varying percentages of Scandinavian place names.

An even greater surprise comes when archaeological evidence from around the time of the Boscombe Bowman is mapped, showing a strong correlation between Rox2 EKAs and the distribution of archaeological finds of all-over-corded pottery, a product associated with the Lower Rhine area, in the British Isles and Ireland (Figure H). The reason for this, it is suggested, is that both the flow of early medieval Rox2 genetics and ancient all-over-corded bell beaker technology was facilitated by northern European trade. When the locations of Rox2 EKAs are plotted on a map showing trade routes and hubs in the British Isles and Ireland during the Viking Age, the relationship is plain (Figure I). The expansion of Rox2 in the British Isles and Ireland was almost certainly directed along trade routes that had been well established since prehistoric times. Our Rox2 ancestor may have been more comfortable carrying a purse than a sword or, at least, had followed the money trail.

Rox2 clusters appear to mirror three main geographic areas of Viking trade activity. The first involved lucrative trade with southern England, especially towards the turn of the 11th century; the second involved trade passing through the North Sea coastal centres of north-eastern England and adjacent to the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw; the third was determined by the desirability of moving goods directly, to and fro, between the English and Scottish North Sea trade centres and Viking regions on the Irish Sea: Galloway, Cumbria, Isle of Man and Ireland. Of greatest importance was Viking Dublin, Europe’s largest slave market. Perhaps the Rox2 founder or his son(s) took the same advice offered by the Norwegian chieftain Brynjolf to his son Bjorn as recorded in the medieval Icelandic work, Egil’s Saga:

I’ll give you a trading ship and cargo. Go south to Dublin: that’s the most renowned of journeys these days.35

Figure I. Rox2 EKA locations in the British Isles showing relationship to Scottish and English trade routes and hubs and to areas with varying percentages of Scandinavian place names.

Trade routes in Britain were determined by port access, navigable rivers, portages, high country passes and, in some cases, old Roman roads.36 The northern English trade routes from York Jorvik) to Dublin passed through West Yorkshire along the River Wharfe, close by the 16th century Smithson homeland; and along the Rivers Aire and Calder, close by the homelands of three other Rox2 EKAs, before crossing over the Pennine passes and taking once more to watercraft. In Scotland, the subjugation of Strathclyde in 866, combined with campaigns in southern Pictland, gave the Vikings some control of the trade routes of central Scotland. They made use of the trade routes and portages between the River Clyde and the River Tweed and Loch Lomond and the Firth of Forth. Elizabeth Pierce has considered the problem of the sparse archaeological evidence of the Vikings in Argyll and the Clyde River Valley, areas of particular Rox2 interest. As shown in Figure I, there is a lack of Scandinavian place-names in that region. Pierce attributes this to a situation where the Vikings established small-scale settlement and trading posts rather than, for instance, the concentration of farmsteads that characterised the Viking occupation of the Scottish Isles.37

Yet, it could be asked why there isn’t a stronger cluster of Rox2 EKAs in Dublin and the old Viking areas of southern Ireland – Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick?38 Firstly, the expansion of Rox2 may have been directed towards Dublin, but Rox2 ‘sons’ need not necessarily have lingered there. Secondly, the weakness of the genetic footprint in Dublin may be due, in large part, to the kingdom of Dublin’s instability. For all its military and political reach in the mid9th century, Dublin fell to the Irish in 902. It was re-established in 917, but Scandinavian influence steadily declined thereafter.

Although Vikings in Ireland and England suffered reverses with the decline of the Kingdom of Dublin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jorvik to the English in the mid900s, trading activities in the British Isles and Ireland would have continued. Scandinavian influence received a boost with England’s conquest and its inclusion into Cnut (Canute) the Great’s short-lived North Sea Empire in the early 11th century. By this time, one would expect Rox2 ancestors to be more Anglo-Scandinavian and Norse-Gaelic than Viking.

Detail of the rear of a hogback monument at St Thomas’ church, Brompton, North Yorkshire. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Bob Embleton – geograph.org.uk/p/3029517

If one should look for a concrete measure of the reach of Norse-Gael and Anglo-Scandinavian traders, it could be found in the distribution of hogback monuments (Figure J). Some controversy surrounds these monuments. Nevertheless, there is good evidence for their association with a 10th century influx of Norse Irish into the Scandinavian haunts of northern Yorkshire, Cumbria and western Scotland and with the ‘Anglo-Scandinavian mercantile community’ and their trade routes.39 Once again, there is a close geographical correlation between the locations of Rox2 EKAs and hogback monuments in Scotland and northern England. The absence of hogback monuments on the Isle of Man appears to be related to the scarcity of suitable stone for their production. Hogbacks located on the Orkneys are considered late examples and perhaps it is no coincidence that the sole Orkney Rox2 EKA appears as an outlier in the overall distribution of the Rox2 cluster. A cluster of hogback monuments occur in the Five Boroughs, a Scandinavian-influenced area in the eastern Midlands of England and close to Rox2 EKA locations, while isolated examples occur in southern England and in south-eastern Ireland (Kildare, near Dublin).

Figure J. Rox2 EKA locations in the British Isles showing relationship to hogback monuments, Scottish and English trade routes and to areas with varying percentages of Scandinavian place names.

A most significant indication of Rox2’s Scandinavian connections is the formation of a Rox2 cluster, Y23589, in Northern Sweden with some EKA’s dating in written records back to the 1540s.40 The estimated dates for the Y23589 family in Sweden, prior to 2019, ranged from an AD989 foundation to an AD1386 coalescence (expansion). Lately, as a result of a substantial increase in Swedish testing, they have been recalculated to foundation in AD1284 and coalescence in AD1340.41

The Y23589 family, a ‘brother’ to the Smithson BY21591 family, is unique amongst the families of the FGC-11414 branch of Rox2. FGC-11414 families have been traced to Ireland and Scotland, but predominantly to northern England. It is very possible that the Y23589 founder migrated to Sweden from northern England in the medieval period, establishing this exclusively Swedish family line.

One can conjecture as to why that migration would take place. The dates suggested for the foundation and expansion of the Y23589 family fall within a tumultuous period in the history of northern England, beginning with the Norman invasion of 1066 and the brutal ‘Harrying of the North’, which saw high-status refugees from England flee into southern Scotland and even as far afield as Constantinople. The following centuries saw the decline of Scandinavian influence in the British Isles, the Normanisation of England and the emergence of the Kingdom of Scotland, which struggled with England for control of northern England and for its very survival as an independent kingdom. Any one of these social, military or political upheavals could have convinced a Y23589 family to seek refuge or opportunity beyond the shores of the British Isles.

What is interesting is that Y23589 chose Scandinavia. Was it chosen as a culturally familiar place or were there more lucrative ‘pull factors’ at play – or a combination of both? Y23589 chose to settle in Norrland, the northern Swedish frontier zone, an area that offered opportunity. Land could be had in Norrland, which was in the process of being settled by a mixture of Swedish and Norwegians with the blessing of various Scandinavian monarchs.

What of the Smithsons?

The story of the Smithsons in this early period departs from the general story of Rox2 with the emergence of the BY21591 family in West Yorkshire. It is difficult to be certain that the Smithson’s residence at Weardley on the River Wharfe in AD1500 is any indication of their homeland 500-600 years earlier. Yet it is very probable considering they had relatives in the region. The EKA of our closest known Rox2-

Runestone in Ringerike Style, St Paul’s Churchyard, London. David Beard MA: Public Domain


Part of a grave-slab from Otley, near Weardley, carved in the Scandinavian Ringerike style. Copyright: (Otley 12a), Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, University of Durham; photographer: K. P. Jukes and D. J. Craig

BY21591 match, for instance, is also located in the area, at nearby Leeds on the River Aire. The two EKAs of a ‘brother’ BY21591 Rox2 family, BY49857, are located on the River Calder, 20 kilometres southwest of Weardley. Both the Rivers Calder and the Aire-Wharfe served as trade routes in the early medieval period.

There is also good evidence of an Anglo-Scandinavian community living in the region around Weardley during the Viking Age. Their influence was celebrated in a collection of Anglo-Scandinavian funerary monuments, located at Otley and Weston. It would appear that church lands at Otley-Weston were seized by Scandinavian settlers by the latter part of the 10th century. The art historian, Robert Halstead, sees evidence in the Otley and Weston monuments of a land struggle between the archbishops of York and incoming Scandinavian settlers.42 There was a ‘wholescale obliteration’ of Anglian crosses in the area which were re-carved into probable grave markers for the new Anglo-Scandinavian elite, some of which seem to contain Scandinavian mythological elements.43 Similar monuments have been found at Leeds and a fragment of an Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture was uncovered in the grounds of the Smithsons’ parish church at Harewood.44

Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture (10th-11th century) showing a boar hunt, part of the shaft of a monumental cross found at Harewood in 1981. Author photo.

The Anglian-Scandinavian tension seems to have been renewed in the early 11th century and marked by the introduction of the Scandinavian Ringerike art style into Otley monuments during the reign of King Cnut. Ringerike art in England is associated with Cnut’s accession to the English throne, but most English examples are located close to his court in southern England. Its adoption at Otley can be seen as a celebration of Cnut’s restoration of some measure of power to the Anglo-Scandinavian elite in Northern England. Their position had been eroded when the Saxon King Edmund I of Wessex brought northern England under his control in the mid10th century.45

Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture on a grave marker found at Weston, about 12 kilometres north-west of Weardley. It shows a figure brandishing a sword and Viking axe, which may have mythological significance. Copyright: (Weston 1c), Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, University of Durham; photographer: K. P. Jukes and D. J. Craig

Halstead summarises the situation in the Smithsons’ region:

The sculpture at the nearby and related Wharfedale sites of Otley and Weston suggests that despite [a] shared cultural tradition, the accommodation between the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian inhabitants of the region was not always an easy one. In the context of the sites’ landscape history, it seems that at Otley and Weston the Anglo-Scandinavian sculptors were, through their work, making deliberate and political points about control over the landscape, perhaps intending to distance themselves from their Anglian predecessors.46

Nevertheless, by the year 1066, the area around Weardley was under the control of a mixture of Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian headmen, the names of just two of which, Tor (Thor) and Grim (Grímr), indicate their Scandinavian heritage.

Did the Smithsons from Weardley share in that Viking heritage?

This Smithson Story theorises that they did, through their Rox2 ancestry; an ancestry that, it is argued, was carried into the British Isles, Ireland and beyond on a Scandinavian tide around the 9th century AD. Any vision we might have of a Smithson, bedecked in mail and carrying a sword and axe, bearing down on a hapless monastery may well be wide of the mark. Whether he had come from Denmark, Norway or Sweden, or from any of the lands that had experienced Scandinavian influence, the evidence suggests that he had more interest in trading than raiding. Indeed, after a few generations of marrying and settling down in, for instance, Scotland or England, these Smithson ancestors would have dreaded the arrival of ‘vikings’ in their district as much as had the native population many years before.

Turning aside from such visions to consider the reality of the evidence, we find that, unfortunately, it is thin and circumstantial. But it is promising. Linking the emergence of the Rox2 cluster (including the Smithsons) to Viking/Scandinavian expansion depends largely upon the dating of Rox2 SNPs and accurate mapping of the home localities of Rox2 EKAs. This circumstantial evidence can be strengthened (or weakened) through continued DNA testing by hobbyists, the genealogical research they undertake and their willingness to share results through DNA projects and genealogical media. Proof, however, will probably only come from the testing of early medieval human remains and, in order to determine the origins of Rox2, ancient human remains, combined with the publication of detailed genetic data.

As for the Smithson ancestors who may have lived near Weardley as the Viking Age dimmed, any standing they may have enjoyed due to an Anglo-Scandinavian heritage was swept away by the arrival of a new Norman elite in England in 1066. Another four centuries or so would pass before they would rise out of anonymity.

  1. George R Smithson, Genealogical Notes & Memoirs of the Smithson Family, Seeley and Co. Ltd, London, 1906, p.1.
  2. John Kousgård Sørensen, Patronymics in Denmark and England, Viking Society, London, 1983. Sørensen critically assesses the argument presented by P. H. Reaney (see also: Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames, Psychology Press, 1991, p.xix) that the Scandinavian influence in the evolution of patronymic ‘–son’ surnames in England has been overstated.
  3. For an accessible introduction to genetic genealogy, see Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy,  https://sites.google.com/site/wheatonsurname/beginners-guide-to-genetic-genealogy.
  4. David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here, Pantheon, New York, 2018, pp.102-107.
  5. ibid., pp.109-114.
  6. ibid., p.98; pp.114-116.
  7. Chris Corner, ‘Bronze Age DF27’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster, https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  8. Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British, Robinson, London, 2012, p.141. Chris Corner, ‘Home’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster,https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  9. This is a phylogenetically equivalent block, meaning that we do not know the sequence in which each SNP in the block occurred. The various testing companies or bodies have selected different SNPs to lead the block and employ different names for SNPs which can cause confusion.
  10. Chris Corner, ‘Research’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster,https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  11. Chris Corner, ‘Latest News’; ‘Bronze Age DF27’ ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster,https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  12. Chris Corner, ‘Home’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster, https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  13. ibid.
  14. Stewart DNA Project, https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/stewart/about/results, accessed 2019. Manx Y-DNA Study: eight year report, August 2018, http://www.manxdna.co.uk/3%20year%20report.pdf, 5.3.2. Hickey DNA Project, https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/hickey/about/background, accessed 2019.
  15. Chris Corner, ‘Founder’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster, < https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/>, accessed 2018.
  16. Chris Corner, ‘Rox2’s Estimated Age’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster, < https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/>, accessed 2018.
  17. Winney, Bruce et al. “People of the British Isles: preliminary analysis of genotypes and surnames in a UK-control population”, European Journal of Human Genetics: EJHG vol. 20,2 (2011): 203-10.
  18. People of the British Isles, Newsletter, Issue 6, March 2015, http://www.peopleofthebritishisles.org/nl6.pdf.
  19. Patrick MacAuley, Macauley/Mccauley Clans of Ireland, http://www.clanawley.com/, 2011, accessed 2019.
  20. Hickey DNA Project, ‘Results’, https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/hickey/about/background, accessed 2019.
  21. Ashot Margaryan, Daniel Lawson, Martin Sikora et al., Population Genomics of the Viking World, BioRxiv, 2019.
  22. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson (trans), Laxdaela Saga, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979, ch.25.
  23. Peter Sjölund, ‘Viking DNA in Ireland. Do you have some and where did it come from?’, Genetic Genealogy Ireland, 2016.
  24. Margaryan et al, Population Genomics of the Viking World.
  25. Webb https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?17812-Population-genomics-of-the-Viking-world-(bioxiv-2019-Copenhagen)&p=584556#post584556 7-22-2019, #387.
  26. Margaryan et al, Population Genomics of the Viking World. Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900, Routledge, London, 2003, p.113.
  27. National Museum of Denmark, Trade in the Viking period, https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/expeditions-and-raids/trade-in-the-viking-period/, accessed 2019.
  28. Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings, Oxford Uni Press, London, p.216. Ann Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean, Bloomsbury, London, 2015, p.56.
  29. Magnusson and Palsson, Laxdaela Saga, ch.6; 16.
  30. Margaryan et al, Population Genomics of the Viking World.
  31. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland in the Ninth Century, Chronicon 2 (1998) 3: 35.
  32. Chris Corner, ‘Geographical Distribution’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster,https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  33. Chris Corner, ‘Home’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster.
  34. The result of this intermixture could be seen in 1066 in England, at the end of the Viking Era. In that year, the Norwegian Viking king, Harold Hardrada, invaded northern England. He was opposed unsuccessfully by the local Anglo-Scandinavian nobility before being defeated by King Harold Godwinson, son of the Saxon Godwin and the Danish Gytha Thorkelsdóttir. Harold then confronted French-speaking William of Normandy, descendant of the Viking Rollo, at the Battle of Hastings using tactics adopted after centuries of fighting Vikings.
  35. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (trans), Egil’s Saga, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, ch.32.
  36. James Frederick Edwards, The Transport System of Medieval England and Wales – A Geographical Synthesis, PhD Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Salford, 1987.
  37. Elizabeth Pierce, The Hidden Heritage of a Landscape: Vengeful Vikings and Reckless Rustlers: Archaeological and historical evidence for the Vikings in Central and Western Scotland, Hidden Heritage Project report, 2013,http://hiddenheritage.org.uk/docs/060_307__archaeologicalandhistoricalevidenceofthevikingsincentralandwesternscotland_forwebsite_1386075884.pdf
  38. It appears that the small Rox2 cluster in Cork may be the result of modern migration from the Limerick-Tipperary region.
  39. Robert Halstead, The Stone Sculpture of Anglo-Scandinavian Yorkshire in its Landscape Context, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2016, http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/14288/1/Halstead_R_Fine%20Art%2C%20History%20of%20Art%20and%20Cultural%20Studies_PhD_2016.pdf , pp.15, 44-46; 141; 146-147
  40. Recent additions appear to have lived on the Finnish mainland and the island of Åland, perhaps the result of later Swedish colonisation.
  41. Chris Corner, ‘Rox2’s Estimated Age’, ‘Rox2’ yDNA cluster,https://sites.google.com/site/rox2cluster/home, accessed 2019.
  42. Robert Halstead, The Stone Sculpture of Anglo-Scandinavian Yorkshire, pp.169-198.
  43. ibid., p.198.
  44. Unfortunately, this sculpture was stolen from the Church of All Saints, Harewood, in 2015.
  45. Robert Halstead, The Stone Sculpture of Anglo-Scandinavian Yorkshire, p.197.
  46. ibid., p.26.