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Genealogy and genes: tracing the founding fathers of Tristan da Cunha

European Journal of Human Genetics volume 11, pages 705709 (2003) | Download Citation



The island population of Tristan da Cunha has a well-documented genealogy that dates to its first permanent settlement in 1816. The current population is thought to have descended from only seven females and eight males. Today, there are seven family names in use, corresponding to the number of founding fathers with present-day male descendents. Y chromosome polymorphisms have previously been shown to be reliable tools for tracing patrilineal genealogies. Here, we studied Y chromosome polymorphisms in a sample from Tristan da Cunha together with genealogical records to (i) infer the haplotypes of the seven founders and (ii) test if the Y chromosome transmission is consistent with the documented patrilineal history of the island community. We observed nine Y chromosome haplotypes of which seven could be traced to the known ancestors. Of the two additional lineages, one probably evolved from a founder haplotype due to a single-step microsatellite mutation, while the other had an obvious non-island origin. Its introduction, however, is not reflected in the records. Four more instances of non-paternity were identified, with the ‘new’ chromosomes matching other island haplotypes. The Y chromosome data presented here question the validity of some of the genealogical documentation and emphasise the value of genetic studies in tracing ancestry.

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We would like to thank Professor E du Toit for samples, Professor D Roberts for genealogical data as well as Ms C Dorf for technical assistance. This research was supported by grants from the National Health Laboratory Service (formerly known as South African Institute for Medical Research), the South African Medical Research Council, the National Research Foundation and the University of the Witwatersrand. AN is the recipient of the Hillel Friedland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the University of the Witwatersrand.

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    • Himla Soodyall
    •  & Almut Nebel

    The first two authors contributed equally to the paper.


  1. MRC/NHLS/Wits Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit, Division of Human Genetics, School of Pathology, National Health Laboratory Service and University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa

    • Himla Soodyall
    • , Almut Nebel
    • , Bharti Morar
    •  & Trefor Jenkins


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Correspondence to Himla Soodyall.

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