Y-DNA Test – I am a Viking, OK!

Y-DNA Test – I am a Viking, OK!


When I was 10, my dad found an article in the local paper by an old chap called Arthur Rimmer.  I’ve still got the 1980 original.   Arthur had spent years researching the origin of the Rimmer surname and concluded that we were descended from Vikings who had originally settled in the West Lancashire seaside town of Southport.  As a youngster, the thought of Viking ancestry really grabbed my imagination, so Arthur’s pronouncements were good enough for me.

Years later, great advances in genetic research have shed much light on the origins of our species and its migration patterns over the whole planet.  They also show that old Arthur may not have been too wide of the mark regarding the Rimmers.

Freebie DNA Test

My family history research of the Rimmers had been run aground for a number of years at around 1657 with the birth of my ancestor Nicholas Rimmer, a yeoman farmer near Liverpool.  I had heard about DNA Testing, but it sounded too complicated, too expensive and I wasn’t sure it would help me anyway.  Then a couple of years ago I came across an advert in the local paper asking for volunteers to take part in a project to determine the genetic legacy of the Vikings in northwest England.  It was being run by geneticists at the University of Leicester.  The criteria were that volunteers should be male and have a paternal grandfather born in northwest England.  So far, so good – my Grandad Rimmer was Blackburn born and bred.

The project planned to “exploit the power of the link…between surnames and Y-chromosomal DNA (both of which are passed from father to son)”.  The Rimmer surname was considered to be a ‘Medieval’ sample, because it appeared on an old list of West Lancashire surnames of those “promising to contribute to the stipend of the priest of the altar of Our Lady of Ormskirk, 1366”.  I seemed to be an ideal candidate, and it was free, so I applied.

A few weeks later an envelope came through the post containing a swab kit and instructions.  I swabbed the inside of my cheek to collect the requisite cells for analysis, signed a consent form with my contact details and sent it off.  I was told that the results would be returned to volunteers at the end of the project in around 18 months’ time.  So I carried on with my life.

A year-and-a-half later an e-mail duly arrived out of the blue one Saturday morning.  It contained 2 PDF files.  The first one showed a set of 16 numbers under the heading STR markers and predicted Haplogroup – I2b.  The second sheet showed a brief explanation of what each haplogroup meant.  It explained that Haplogroup R1a is “generally quite rare in Britain except in regions with strong Norse ancestry and often regarded as a signature of Norse Viking ancestry” and that Haplogroup I1 is also “a possible signal of Viking ancestry, since it is found at high frequencies in Scandinavia”.  For my own predicted haplogroup I2b it gave the rather bland assessment, “Contains rarer subgroups of haplogroup I found at lower frequencies in Britain, as well as Central and southern Europe”.

I was a bit crushed.  No mention of Vikings?  Me and Sandra had taken a cruise of the Norwegian fjords the previous summer so that I could visit the old homeland. And I had felt an affinity walking around Bergen and Stavanger, etc.  So how could this be?  It struck me just how deep rooted my perceived tribal identity was, no matter how far back its origin.  But that’s just stupid, right?  Who can say for sure where they originated centuries ago?  Some people can’t even be sure from whom they originated one generation ago – “It is a wise child who knows its own father” as Homer (not Simpson) put it.  Anyway, the subject definitely warranted further investigation.

I wanted a second opinion on haplogroup I2b. I found a link for Ethnoancestry, a commercial genetic genealogy company.  It said:  “Haplogroup I2b appears to have originated near modern day Germany, where it reaches it peak frequency. I2b is found spread across a broad area of NW Europe including the British Isles, where it has been brought by numerous historical migrations”.

German? Well, I felt more of an affinity here.  I had studied German at school and with the Open University, preferring it over French, and had enjoyed a number of visits there. Also, Germany and Denmark share a border, so a Viking connection may still be on the cards.  I felt a bit more heartened.

Next I registered with DNA-Forums and introduced myself and my results.  There were some very bright contributors on there who were very well up on genetics and the history of Bronze and Iron Age tribes.  A flurry of posts began, debating whether my origins pointed to Viking, Celt, Pict, Angle, Jute or Saxon.  It all seemed a bit abstract, but a consensus emerged that Viking ancestry could not be ruled out.  The final post also strongly suggested that I get tested by Family Tree DNA.

A bit of shopping around showed me that Family Tree DNA (or FTDNA) was the market leader in genetic genealogy.  Their products page had an array of tests for both males and females, ranging from a test to see if a man has ‘the Warrior Gene’ (apparently men with this gene are more likely to be risk-taking, aggressive and competitive than those without it) to a ‘Comprehensive Genome’ test.  What the hell did it all mean?  I had dropped biology at school because I couldn’t handle cutting up frogs.  So time for a dummy’s crash course in genetics (as it relates to the male line).

The Science Bit

We all carry DNA in our cells; fathers provide the Y-chromosome, mothers provide the X-chromosome. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son, unchanged, generation after generation. A rare event may occur at conception: a mutation – a random, naturally occurring change at some point on the Y-chromosome, which the son will pass down to his sons, and so on. These very rare mutations act as signposts. They can be detected by lab testing and traced through male generations for thousands of years. By reasoning out when and where a marker first occurred they can clarify prehistoric human migrations. The theory is that the founder’s descendants are bunched more densely near the original location of the founder and then thin out as they disperse over time, so they give a rough idea of a lineage’s migrations and how the small tribes of our species grew, diversified and then spread around the world.

Lab analysis of the Y-chromosome results in a series of numbers – these are repeat counts against DNA Y-chromosome Segments (or DYS for short). The repeats at each DYS marker are known as alleles. The number of alleles against each DYS can tell their own story of a man’s origins, but taken as a whole they can give a pretty good indication of what his haplogroup is.

A haplogroup is a particular gene group and is assigned a letter for ease of reference.  Each haplogroup can be further divided into subclades, which are also referenced by letters and numbers.  New subclades are being discovered all the time as more and more people are being tested, so naming conventions can shift fairly rapidly.  Each haplogroup can be thought of as the ancient ‘tribe’ or ethnic group to which our ancestors belonged.  When we know our haplogroup and its subclades, we can guess roughly when and where our ‘tribe’ migrated throughout its history.

Paying for a DNA Test

What the University of Leicester had given me as a freebie was a test against 16 of my DYS markers.  From this they had predicted my haplogroup as I2b.  What I needed from FTDNA was a test of more of my DYS markers to pull that prediction into sharper focus.  The maximum available was a 67 marker test.  My 40th birthday was coming up so I thought ‘what the hell – I’m worth it’ and ordered it.

Within a couple of weeks, the testing kit had arrived from the US.  Again, I took cheek swabs (FTDNA asks for 3 samples as a belt and braces approach) and sent them off by post.  On ordering my test, I had been given my unique customer username and password to log on to my personal page on the FTDNA site.  From here I could track the progress of the test, which took around 6 weeks for all 67 markers.

When the test was complete, my DYS markers were available on my personal page.  I was also notified of near genetic matches with other customers.  This included probabilities of sharing a common ancestor, as well as the opportunity to get in touch by e-mail (which I did).  I had the opportunity to join the many project groups that had been set up on the site.  Naturally I went for the Viking Project, which listed the names, originating countries and DYS markers of those who think they may have Old Danish or Norse blood in their veins.

There was a link to Ysearch, the world’s largest database of Y-DNA data, which FTDNA offers as a free public service to allow those that have tested with different companies to compare their results and get in touch.  Other features include a tool to calculate how closely people are related genetically and the ability to upload family trees (in the form of GEDCOM files).

DNA Results – Making Sense of Them

The important job was to make sense of my markers.  FTDNA confirmed that I was in Haplogroup I and offered me a Deep Clade test, at a cost, to refine that further.  This is useful for those with more uncommon results, but with 67 marker scores I reckoned I could find out my haplogroup with a good degree of accuracy for free.  I found Jim Cullen’s World Haplogroup & Haplo-I Subclade Predictor, which works on an algorithm based on the research of acclaimed Haplogroup I guru, Ken Nordtvedt (now there’s an excellent Viking-sounding name!).  You feed your marker scores in, and your predicted Haplogroup is churned out.  It was almost right.  It predicted me as being in Haplogroup I2b1.  When I applied to join the I2b1 project on FTDNA, the eagle-eyed project leader spotted anomalies in some of marker scores and e-mailed me to see that she had referred my results to the resident Haplogroup I expert (for the Y-DNA geeks amongst you the anomalies where the values of 10 & 12 at DYS 455 & DYS 454 and 19, 19 at YCA II a & b).  In fact, I was unmistakably in the less common Haplogroup I2b2.

I2b2 is a very rare subclade of Haplogroup I and was only discovered in May 2005.  It is purely European.  There is still much to discover about it, but its story is being advanced by gifted hobbyists such as Hans de Beule who has published a number of articles on the wanderings of I2b2 people.  Haplogroup I was one of the earliest groups to settle on the continent around 40,000 years ago.  Today I2b2 is thinly spread over Europe but its frequency is highest in the Upper Rhine region of Germany, making it a likely point of origin around 6-7,000 years ago.  Given its subsequent spread across Europe over the millenia, it is entirely possible that I2b2 people moved northwards into Denmark and possibly southern Norway to eventually become Vikings.  Certainly, there were complex movements of peoples all over the Continent over this period, complicating the DNA picture considerably

The History Bit

Viking raids on the east coast of England in 793 AD gradually led to their control of the northern and eastern counties, where they settled.  The Viking Kingdom of York extended over modern Yorkshire. Viking raids on Ireland in 795 AD eventually led to their settlement of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Wexford.  The influence of the Viking Kingdom of Dublin extended across the Irish Sea into modern Lancashire.  At various points in this period the Irish were able to drive the Vikings out, leading to Scandinavian immigration into Lancashire, particularly the coastal areas south of the River Ribble (which was part of the Viking trade route between Dublin and York), and including the villages of North Meols (which later became modern day Southport).

An excellent article by Clare Downham on the anachronistic national labelling of the Vikings as either ‘Norwegian’ or ‘Dane’ argues that this is over-simplistic and would not have concerned the Vikings themselves; Viking warbands comprised a diverse range of people and were not uniformly from just one part of Scandinavia.  Maps of Viking Age Britain have the Pennines as a buffer between the ‘Norwegian’ Kingdom of Dublin and the ‘Danish’ Kingdom of York, like the one below from the highly recommended MacDonnell of Leinster site:

The over-simplistic way in which Viking place-names have been interpreted is evident in such maps  showing eastern and western Scandinavian settlements in different colours as if Norwegian and Danish populations lived in geographically separated zones; this was not a Viking Age reality.

Scandinavian communities in northern England and Ireland merged with the local populations, as evidenced by the modern connection between Danish and German I2b2 samples with northern English and Irish ones, suggesting that some I2b2s mingled with north German and Scandinavian populations and migrated to England and Ireland as Vikings.  The impact on culture and language of this Anglo-Scandinavian assimilation in northern England is still felt to this day, particularly in the distinctive dialects of English spoken in the north, which can still be unintelligible to people from the south!

The Grimrs

My preferred theory for the origins of the Rimmers in Lancashire is migration and settlement with the Vikings, as part of a population that had earlier moved northwards from the I2b2 heartlands in northern Germany to Denmark.  This map, courtesy of Worldnames showing the modern distribution of people with the surname Rimmer in northwest Europe supports this.

It shows an unusually high concentration in west Lancashire, as well as a moderate frequency in Denmark (and a very low frequency in Norway and Sweden). A prehistoric origin, or an Anglo-Saxon origin, would explain a more uniform frequency of I2b2s from the continent across the length and breadth of England, but does less to explain the later presence of a high concentration of people with a common surname in such a localised area.

Where does the Rimmer surname come from? The old Scandinavian personal name Grimr probably signified the Norse god Odin and was given to male children to encourage the god’s protection; with a silent ‘g’ it may be the origin of Rymer/Rimer/Rimmer, as well as other surnames common in Lancashire such as Grimshaw, and in Ireland such as Grimes. It also occurs in placenames in Lancashire, such as Grimsargh (“Grimr’s hill pasture”) and Yorkshire/Lincolnshire, such as Grimsby (“Grimr’s farm”).

The Rimmers may either have originally settled in Viking York and gradually moved westwards to the Lancashire coast, or settled in Viking Dublin and arrived abruptly on the Lancashire coast following expulsion in the early 10th century. The latter course seems more likely given the very high frequency of Rimmers in west Lancashire, centred on the ancient parish of North Meols (recorded in 1086 as Otegrimele or “Ote Grimr’s Sandbank”) in modern day Southport. There was relatively little population mobility in medieval times, so surname distribution would have changed little. Anglo-Scandinavian culture and naming practices were still strong in Lancashire when true surnames began to be widely established from the 12th century; there is evidence of Anglo-Scandinavian naming customs surviving in Lancashire parish records well into the 17th century.

Rimmer DNA Evidence

Links between haplogroups and surnames can be imprecise due to hidden paternity and adoptions at some point in a family’s history. However, a match of DNA markers within the I2b2 haplogroup, a common Rimmer surname match, plus a link to a common geographic location within the last 1,000 years can support my theory.

My close male relatives will have the same or near identical markers and biologically unrelated people will typically have quite different ones. By using average marker mutation rates it is possible to compare two profiles and back-calculate how long ago their most recent common ancestor lived.

The table below shows a selection of Y-chromosome results posted by members of the public on DNA databases such as Ysearch and DNA Reunion. The numbers across the top row represent the DYS markers, the numbers beneath them represent the repeats or alleles. The values of 10 & 12 at DYS 455 & DYS 454 and 19, 19 at YCA II a & b signify Haplotype I2b2; the 7 individual samples below are, therefore, all I2b2 males.

Rimmer DNA

1.   The row of values in red are mine; if you are related to me through the direct male line within the last 6 generations, they will be yours also.

2.   These values belong to a closely matched individual with the surname Rimmer whose immediate ancestors were living in Southport 100 years ago.  It is estimated that our most common recent ancestor (MRCA) goes back 22 generations, or (with an average of 25 years per generation) 550 years. This means that our MRCA was most probably living in or near the old parish of North Meols around the mid 1400s, so at some point in the 200 years between this MRCA and my first traceable ancestor, Nicholas Rimmer (1657-1717), the Rimmers gradually moved south from North Meols to Liverpool; the towns en route: Ormskirk, Formby and Crosby all have Scandinavian origins and sizeable populations of Rimmers.

3.   These values belong to a more distantly matched individual with the surname Rimmer who was born and still lives in Southport, as did all of his traceable ancestors.  It is estimated that our MRCA could go back as many as 50 generations, or over 1,200 years. Applying a sensible margin of error of a couple hundred years either side of this, this means that our MRCA may have been resident in the ancient district of Otegrimele, or may even have helped to found it as a refugee from Viking Dublin.

4 & 5.   These values belong to 2 separate individuals in the USA with the surname Raymoure. They have not been able to trace back further than their common ancestor Thomas Raymor who married in Massachusetts in 1758. Our MRCA is estimated at 16 generations, or 400 years. Raymor is probably a corruption of Rimmer (or Rymor as it was often spelt in 16th and 17th century Lancashire parish registers).  American genealogists have found such surname corruption was very common, particularly amongst the very early migrants to the USA.  It is not difficult to imagine an I2b2 Rimmer in the 18th century making the short trip to Liverpool to board a ship to emigrate to the New World, and Massachusetts was a very popular area of settlement for subsequent generations of Lancashire folk.

6.   These values belong to an individual in the USA with the surname Grimes. Our match is too distant to be useful in identifying a common link to a particular place, but nonetheless it is a I2b2 sample and we probably shared a common ancestor within the last 2,000 to 1,500 years. Grimes is a common surname in Ireland and in Lancashire, but it is ultimately of Scandinavian pre 7th century (i.e. pre-Viking age) origins and also probably derives from the personal name Grimr.

Is DNA Testing a Scam?

Genetic genealogy is still a very new science and much remains to be discovered.   Y-DNA testing has been criticised for giving ‘hyped promises’ about precisely what it can reveal about an individual’s ancestry, where they lived and which ‘tribes’ they belonged to.  It is true that Y-DNA testing concentrates on only a very narrow part of an indicidual’s ancestral origins, that is the direct male line.  I disagree, however, that this makes it a ‘vanity project’ of little value to family historians.  I have hopefully shown that it can be extremely useful for those with a specific goal in mind, e.g. finding out the origins of your surname.  On the face of it Y-DNA testing, will indeed just provide you with a set of numbers.  But those numbers can set the starting gun on some fascinating self-motivated research and the chance to make contact with like-minded (distant) relatives, which is the fun part of family history research.  I’ve certainly learned more about basic anthroplogy, prehistoric, ancient and medieval social history in the past few months than I have throughout my schooling – so much so that I have been compelled to write another post on the 60,000 year story of my male ancestors’ journey from the Rift Valley to Lancashire.

If I ruled the world, DNA tests would be compulsory at birth.  But I don’t, so all I can do is urge anyone with an interest in their male line origins to take a Y-DNA test – we need reinforcements!  With a worldwide Y-DNA database large enough and diverse enough to properly identify different populations, we may one day be able to determine with much greater clarity just how we are related to distant ancestors, and when and where they lived.

In the meantime, I will continue to trawl the existing DNA databases to prove that I am a Viking and that old Arthur was right.  Whatever happens, in this day and age it’s what you feel yourself to be that counts!


Further Reading:


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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015