DNA Testing of the Fleming Family: Interpreting the Findings

Genetic analysis is increasingly being used to complement more traditional studies of specific families and people groups.  The Scotland and the Flemish People Project includes a DNA project that readers, who believe they may have Flemish roots, are encouraged to join.  A primary goal of the DNA project is to determine whether an individual has a genetic match with a control group with origins in Flanders.  It is too early to report on the full results of the analysis, but an interesting early finding confirms what some other studies have found regarding the Fleming surname.

These are very early days in the Scotland – Flanders DNA project, which is part of the broader project aiming to understand the impact of the immigration of Flemish people on Scotland.  A preliminary examination of the DNA results suggests that, like earlier studies comparing the relationship between Y-DNA and surnames, people with the family name of Fleming do not all share a common male ancestor.

Before looking at some possible explanations for the lack of matching between men sharing the Fleming name, let us start with some of the basic science of genetic genealogy.  The Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) is only carried by men who pass it unchanged to their sons, who in turn pass it to their sons. As surnames are traditionally inherited by a son from his father, it follows that—unless there are exceptional circumstances of the sort discussed below—there is correlation between the Y-chromosome and a surname borne by a man.

Analysis of a man’s Y-chromosome yields the haplotype (signature) of his lineage. This so-called “genetic signature” can then be compared between men of the same surname.  When results for different men are compared, a computation is made to determine the probability that they shared the same paternal ancestor during the time-frame of the existence of their surname (i.e. Fleming).

F. Lawrence Fleming suggests (in blogs dated the 22nd and 29th of November 2013) that virtually all people who possess the surname Fleming are descended from one man, specifically Erkenbald the Fleming who came to Britain with William the Conqueror in 1066. If this were the case there would be a strong presumption that people with the surname Fleming would be related and that this would be reflected in men bearing the Fleming surname also sharing the same Y-chromosome signature. But this is not the case. From the evidence of Y-DNA analysis undertaken so far the Fleming name clearly has multiple origins. This evidence will be further reviewed as additional men with the surname Fleming are tested. The proportion of Fleming surname men with roots in Scotland and who can be attributed as having a geographical origin in Flanders is still to be determined.  The project is also, of course, looking at the probability that men with certain other surnames have Flemish roots.

So what are possible explanations for, in general, a lack of a DNA match between men with the Fleming surname?  First, it should be noted that evidence from other Y-DNA surname projects confirms that name bearers will share a variety of paternal ancestors.  That said, some possible explanations for the Fleming surname findings include:

  • Individual adoptions into a family:  It is possible that a male child may have been adopted into a Fleming family. If his biological father died and his mother married a Fleming then his Y-DNA signature would naturally be different from other men in the new family unit.
  • Other non-paternal events:  Sometimes illegitimacy occurs whereby a man would carry the Fleming name despite the fact that it was not the surname of his biological father.
  • The adoption of the Fleming surname by new immigrants to Scotland. There is debate about whether a newly arriving immigrant to Scotland would have adopted the Fleming name given that it was a family of some history and stature. However adoption of names describing ethnic and geographical origin was common practice, for example Inglis, Wallace (Walensis meaning Welsh), or Scott.
  • Certain lineages are under-represented in matching databases. Although Y-chromosome testing has been around since 1999 it may well be that some Fleming lineages are under-represented due to fewer males being produced over the centuries. It is a truism that some male lineages eventually go extinct. The paucity of potential male testers can therefore limit some participants from obtaining matching.
  • Fealtic and locational surnames. A final factor to consider is that with the way surnames developed in early Scotland, the indigenous population had the habit of adopting their masters’ names (fealtic surnames) or took place names for their surnames, therefore some of the early Fleming surnamed families may not have been of Flemish descent originally.

Despite a number of lineages being found not to match, several distinct family groups are emerging from the Y-DNA data. We will report on these in future blog posts.

While the findings to date on the Fleming surname may seem surprising, they should not in any way be construed as an indictment of the techniques of genetic DNA analysis.  The lack of a DNA match is as important as a match in that it can shed light on existing hypotheses and point to new avenues for traditional genealogical research to follow.

Alasdair Macdonald and Alex Fleming
February 2014

The DNA test involves a simple swab on the inside of the cheek. There are two levels of test for genealogical research. If you are interested in getting tested we recommend you purchase the 37 marker Y-DNA test as the minimum for surname research, which may well identify distant relatives within Family Tree DNA’s extensive database. The 67 marker test provides extra data and will help us in our analytic work.

This test may give you an indication of your “deep ancestry” by matching with other participants who have been found positive for advanced “deep ancestry” markers. These advanced markers can be ordered at a later date if required. The test kit can be obtained directly by contacting Alasdair Macdonald or via the join tab at http://www.familytreedna.com/public/Flemish_in_Scotland. There is a small discount by ordering through either route (£13-£20 or $20-$30).

The project is administered by Alasdair Macdonald from the University of Strathclyde (Department of Genealogical Studies). He is a leading authority in Scotland on DNA. Should you have any questions please contact Alasdair at scottishdna@strath.ac.uk. Alternatively feel free to contact co-administrator Alex Fleming at aefleming007@comcast.net.

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One Response to DNA Testing of the Fleming Family: Interpreting the Findings

  1. I’ve just read the DNA article with interest. But surely the most likely explanation for the Fleming surname findings has been missed. Namely that surnames were not in common use then.
    Surnames had begun to appear in Flanders in the 11th century for noble families, for whom their principal fief/stronghold often became the family name. It was only around the 13th century that other people’s ‘nicknames’ started becoming last names that were passed from father to son.
    Thus most Flemish who came to England and Scotland then would have acquired their surname after immigrating. It seems most likely that Erkenbald the Fleming was given that name by the Normans – not much point in being called that among his fellow Flemings in Flanders! Similarly, one can well imagine a non-Scot being known as ‘Alex’ (etc) the Fleming, until surnames started being used for ‘ordinary’ people i.e. after the time of Henry II (1154-1189). It could only be true that most Flemings descend from Erkenbald if most of the Flemish who came to England & Scotland then were his relations; and most of all the merchants and others who came were given surnames other than Fleming. Of course, there was no limit on how many families could share the same surname – ask the Smiths!

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