Genetics & Genealogy

Oxford Ancestors

This page was last updated on

Oxford Ancestors is


MatriLine™ uses the proven power of mitochondrial DNA to probe into the deep past. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA for short) is unique in being inherited exclusively through the maternal line, so revealing a female genealogy which has been virtually invisible up to now. Research in Oxford during the past decade has placed all mtDNA genetic fingerprints within an overall evolutionary framework going back 150,000 years.

MatriLine™ locates you within that framework and interprets your deep maternal ancestry, linking you - if your roots are in Europe - to one of seven women: Ursula, Tara, Helena, Katrine, Velda, Xenia or Jasmine.

The recovery of mtDNA from archaeological bones, pioneered at Oxford, adds another dimension and led to the remarkable demonstration by the Oxford team of a direct genetic link between the 9,000 year old Cheddar Man fossil and a schoolteacher who lived down the road from the caves where the bones were discovered.


MyMap™ uses proprietary software developed by Oxford Ancestors researchers to map out the current geographical distribution of any surname. These fascinating maps present the precise locations of individuals with the same name revealing, for instance, local clustering around the historical origin or significant dispersion events. A real boost for single name studies but also fascinating to everyone with a surname - even a common one.


MaleMatch™ compares Y-chromosome genetic fingerprints. Y-chromosomes are passed down from father to son, so any males connected by exclusively paternal links will have identical, or near identical, Y-chromosome genetic fingerprints. MaleMatch™ can be used to establish, or disprove, a paternal link between individuals. Surname researchers will find MaleMatch™ especially useful in testing different branches with the same name.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How have the dates for the Seven Daughters of Eve been estimated ?

A. Like all genes, mitochondrial DNA is affected by mutation. These are changes which occur at random and alter the DNA sequence. Our best estimate is that one mutation is introduced into the stretch of DNA that we sequence for MatriLine roughly every 20,000 years. Although this rate looks very slow judged by time scales with which we are familiar today, it is actually just right for following human evolution where all the action has been concentrated over the last 200,000 years. We estimate the time in the past when the Seven Daughters of Eve lived by adding up the number of mutations that have accumulated in each of their clans and dividing by the mutation rate. So Ursula is the oldest of the seven because her clan has accumulated the most mutations and Jasmine is the youngest because her clan shows the least.

Q. What is the geographic distribution of the different European clans?

A. One of the fascinating results of our work in Europe is that you have to look hard to see clear patterns of geographic distribution of the mitochondrial clans. We think this is because most of the mtDNA of modern Europe has been here a very long time and this has allowed the clans to spread and mix. The main exception is Jasmine where the modern distribution of the clan follows the two main routes into Europe taken by the earliest farmers - one along the Mediterranean coast and up the Atlantic seaboard to western Britain, the other along the river basins of central Europe to the Baltic and the North Sea. There are no modern European groups, with the exception of the Saami of northern Finland and Norway, that do not contain members of all seven clans. It looks as if the Saami are different mainly because the modern population was founded by very few people.

Q. Are there special clans associated with people living in particular areas or with a shared history?

A. Many groups have considered themselves, or been thought of by others, as being genetically distinct. The Basques, who have a very different language to most of the rest of Europe, have sometimes been thought of as a very ancient people predating the arrival of agriculture about 7000 years ago. However, their mtDNA is very typically European. It was this that led us to explore the possibility that the ancestors of the majority of present day Europeans, not just the Basques, could trace their roots way back beyond that time. This is reflected in the old dates we assign to the Seven Daughters of Eve. Once again Jasmine is exceptional. Her clan is very rare in the Basque country.

Hungarians, like the Basques, have an unusual language but they do not have a strikingly different mitochondrial DNA pattern. Although it is inaccurate to generalise, the Jewish people also genetically resemble the present day population of the Near East. What all this means is that genetics offers no support at all to current ethnic divisions in Europe. Our shared genetic ancestry goes back many thousands of years, far beyond political or religious divisions which are, in comparison, a much more recent phenomenon.

Q. If there are seven clans in Europe, how many are there in the rest of the world?

A. A great deal of work has been done on other parts of the world in the past decade and it is very clear that there are plenty more clans. The precise definition of what makes a clan depends on having a very good sample of different countries. Our present estimate is that there are at least 30 clans in the rest of the world of equivalent standing to the seven European clans. Fourteen of them in are found in Africa, six in Eastern Asia and four in native Americans. But some parts of the world have been only very sparsely studied so far and we just don't know what to expect. For instance, I wouldn't be surprised if we found several completely new clans among native Australians.

You don't have to be European to benefit from our MatriLine™ service. We have a database of over 14,000 mitochondrial sequences from all over the world and we will find the closest match to your DNA

Q. Can a root be inferred from the mitochondrial network?

A. The simple answer is yes. If you look at the network on our web site you will notice that all the different clans ultimately spring from a single circle or node. This is the common maternal ancestor of all seven clans and she was alive about 100,000 years ago, probably in the Middle East or Egypt. On our website diagram a dotted line joins her to the other thirty or so clans in the rest of the world. Her maternal ancestors lived in Africa. We are working hard on building a network for the whole world and we will post it on our website soon.

Q. What geographic area does MyMap™ cover?

A. At present we can only cover mainland Britain.

Q. What methods of payment can I use?

A. We prefer payment by cheque in sterling or US dollars. However, we can accept equivalent sums (by cheque) in other currencies if necessary. At present we can cannot accept credit cards.

Q. Is there going to be a discount if I order MatriLine™ and MaleMatch™ at the same time?

A. We don't yet know the final pricing structure for MaleMatch™ but, yes , we will be offering a discount for buying both services at the same time. But you don't need to wait for that. Buy MatriLine™ now and we will deduct the discount when you order MaleMatch™ later.

Q. Will my results be kept confidential?

A. Oxford Ancestors will not use your DNA for any other purpose than the tests you have requested. Your results will be disclosed only to you, and your DNA will be destroyed after the results have been posted back to you.

Q. Where can I find references to all this in the scientific literature?

A. The best thing to do is buy a copy of "The Human Inheritance: Genes Language and Evolution" edited by Bryan Sykes. Published by Oxford University Press 1999. Eight essays by leading academics on all aspects of the revolution in understanding the past triggered by genetics. Edited for a general readership. Contributors are Colin Renfrew, Chris Stringer, Don Ringe, Gabby Dover, Bryan Sykes, Svante Paabo, Ryk Ward and Walter Bodmer.

Here's a selection of other articles.

  1. Paleolithic lineages in the European mitochondrial gene pool.
    Martin Richards and others., American Journal of Human Genetics 1996
    Our first on Europe which caused a stir by claiming that most modern Europeans traced their maternal ancestry way back to the Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Pretty technical.
  2. Ancestral echoes
    Roger Lewin 1997
    New Scientist No 2089
    A review of the fierce debate on European origins. Written for a non-specialist readership.
  3. The emerging tree of West Eurasian mitchondrial DNA
    Vincent Macaulay and others. 1999
    American Journal of Human Genetics vol 64 pp 232-249, 1999
    Where we combine all the genetic data from different parts of mitochondrial DNA and show they make sense. Very technical.
  4. The molecular genetics of European ancestry
    Bryan Sykes 1999
    Proceedings of the Royal Society Vol 354 pp 131-139
    Where we are beginning to define the clusters we recognise today. Not too technical and contains some historical background.
  5. Surnames and the Y-chromosome.
    Bryan Sykes and Catherine Irven 2000
    American Journal of Human Genetics Vol 66 pp1417-1419
    The first study linking the inheritance of surnames with the Y-chromosome. Technical but short.
Top of Page