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Three Welsh icons discover their roots

02/03/2015

Three Welsh celebrities have discovered new information about their backgrounds as a result of ancestral DNA tests carried out as part of the ground-breaking project CymruDNAWales.

On St David's Day, S4C set out on an epic journey with the programme DNA Cymru, a curtain-raiser to a series which will set out to answer questions such as 'Who are the Welsh?' and 'Where did we come from?' by using DNA samples from the people of Wales today.

The programme can be seen again on S4C tomorrow night (Tuesday 3 March) at 11.00 and is available for 35 days after the first transmission.

In the programme Gareth Edwards, Siân Lloyd and Bryn Terfel discovered their roots in the long-distant past by taking part in the DNA tests.

The programme and the series DNA Cymru are part of the exciting project CymruDNAWales set up in a partnership between S4C, CymruDNAWales, Trinity Mirror - publishers of the Western Mail and the Daily Post – and production company Green Bay Media.

Wales rugby legend Gareth Edwards got the 'surprise of his life' when he received the results of his ancestral DNA test. Gareth, a famous son of Gwaun Cae Gurwen, had always thought himself as being of pure Welsh stock but genetic markers on his father's side take the story much, much further back, and much further away - to Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia and as far east as the Volga.

Because the result is most common nowadays in Northern Europe, scientists associated with the project have given it the label ‘Teutonic’. It belongs to a larger genetic group who may have been the first modern humans to colonise Europe. So Gareth has found himself having to re-think his idea of himself as a Celt through and through. "I've never thought of myself as anything but Welsh," said Gareth. "I've always been proud of it and have tended to let everyone know.

"This has come as a shock but I'm intrigued knowing now that, on my father's side, I have a result which is common in places like Scandinavia. After all, I'm not tall and blond, I'm dark and swarthy, typical Welsh stock."

Finding she belongs to a genetic group which includes Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and members of the British Royal Family was a result television presenter, Siân Lloyd never expected.

"It came as a huge surprise to discover I have any connections with Tsar Nicholas II and English Royalty. But my husband, Jonathan is not surprised at all, he knows I never get up in the morning until he's brought me a cup of tea," joked Siân, who's originally from Neath. "I find it all intriguing. I now plan to do more research on Tsar Nicholas II and my middle eastern connections."

Genetic markers on Siân's mother's side are what has set her in the same genetic group as the last Emperor of Russia and English Kings. The research has shown her maternal line is one that's very rare in Wales but common in parts of Italy and Iran. It also reveals a strong marker for red hair and Siân pointed out that at school she was known as 'Cochen' (Ginger).

Scientists associated with the CymruDNAWales project have labelled Siân’s genetic group 'Foragers.' It's common in the Near East and Southern Europe with sub-groups probably coming further into Europe after the Ice Age but before the spread of farming. "That label doesn't surprise me,” admitted Siân. “I am a forager and just love my food."

Genetic markers on Bryn Terfel's father's side showed links with a sub-group, labelled 'Rhineland' by scientists working on the project, part of a much larger group probably present in the first modern humans ever to reach Europe. Bryn's sub-group is common in Germany and was found in ancient DNA taken from 3,000 year old skeletons found in the Lichtenstein Cave in Germany in 1972. It is also present in Scandinavia, the south of Scotland and Ulster.

Asked about the possible German connection and his love of singing Wagner, he said, "I am particularly comfortable singing in the German language."

"There are links with the Welsh language in that I’ve always been led to believe that the Celts from northern Spain went through Austria," said Bryn. "It's intriguing to imagine that my predecessors were breaking new ground, because it's always fascinated me trying to work out how one had the talent to perform and sing coming from a farming background. I find that very interesting."

The results are based on analysis of the three celebrities' ancestral DNA – just 2% of their total DNA. It can be used to trace their family lines back into the distant past. Many other ancestors will have contributed to their total genetic make-up.

In the series, presenters Beti George, Dr Anwen Jones and Jason Mohammad will be explaining how the science of DNA can reveal genetic blueprints that stretch back beyond recorded history.

The project's aim is to conduct the biggest survey ever of ancestral DNA present in today's Welsh population. This is done through samples of saliva. The series will use ancestral DNA to try to answer historical questions.

The series producers are Green Bay Media. Series editor, John Geraint says, “This is an epic story of a people’s journey through history. We’ll have revelations about the genetic heritage of some real Welsh icons such as Gareth, Bryn and Siân as we trace the amazing story of who the Welsh are and where we have come from."

The first programme will be followed by the series in the autumn. Meanwhile you can discover more about the project by visiting http://www.s4c.co.uk/cymrudnawales/e_index.shtml

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