Prince William may have little to no Indian ancestry

By Razib Khan | June 14, 2013 5:33 pm

Credit: Robert Payne

The British media is blowing up today about Prince William’s Indian ancestry. Here’s a representative headline: Hunt is on in Gujarat for a distant cousin who shares Prince William’s Indian blood. The science here is straightforward. Apparently some British researchers found third cousins of Lady Diana Spencer. These individuals, like Diana, are descended from a woman named Eliza Kewark. This woman, William’s great, great, great, great, great grandmother was an ethnic Armenian who was resident in India. She was also the housekeeper of William’s ancestor Theodore Forbes, a Scottish merchant. At some point he sent his children by this woman to be educated in England, and there William’s ancestress married into native British lineages. Since Diana’s cousins share the same unbroken matriline as she does they by definition share an mtDNA lineage. As it happens these individuals carry haplgroup R30b, a very rare lineage found only in South Asia. But that’s not all. Diana’s cousins also are 0.3% and 0.8% South Asian on their autosomal genome. The intersection of these two facts does convince me that William’s genealogical ancestress, Eliza Kewark, did have South Asian ancestry (not totally surprising even in notionally ethnically distinct groups like Armenians or Parsis who have been long resident in India). But please note that I said genealogical ancestress.


Observe the large variance in ancestry of Diana’s two third cousins presumably derived from Eliza Kewark (though there is always the chance that these segments come from different South Asian ancestors, the typically South Asian mtDNA match across the two reduces the probability of that being the answer in this case). Beyond eight generations the chance of a genetic segment being passed from an ancestor down to a descendant is small. Diana’s cousins are seven generations down from Eliza Kewark, so it isn’t totally implausible that a segment should get passed down. But William at eight is at the boundary, and he may carry no segments (in fact, Diana may have carried no segments). Of course I did note that their mtDNA is likely to be passed down, because there is no element of chance in that. You have your mother’s mtDNA. But one can debate whether mtDNA, which is not present in the nucleus, really counts as ancestry. I believe that heritable genetic material is heritable genetic material. Assuming the lines of descent are as they are recorded I accept that we know for a fact that William likely has South Asian mtDNA. But we most certainly do not know if he has any South Asian autosomal DNA.

But in the end how much does this matter? People will make of it what they will. And yet there is an important aspect to note: this seems like another instance of the firm BritainsDNA hyping genetic findings to increase their profile. You see that the screenshot of their website shows that they’re promoting the story about William’s ancestry, and, they’re also claiming that they are offering the world’s most advanced genetic ancestry test. First, I have to observe that their price points are very high, and second, if they are going to claim the most advanced test in the world they should actually do a point-by-point comparison with other services, which they don’t seem to do.

Perhaps more importantly this outfit now has a history of getting caught up in, and frankly stoking, hype. I don’t begrudge anyone their livelihood, or financial success, but scientists do have an implicit and explicit honor code. Jim Wilson has been involved in some interesting work, which is what I knew him from. But a third time will be a trend, and Wilson shouldn’t be surprised if rather soon he becomes thought of as a ‘tabloid geneticist,’ rather than a scholar who popularizes serious science to the broader public.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1812 – 1827

Addendum: For American readers I should make it clear that it isn’t totally surprising that the British upper classes and gentry have some Indian ancestry, because so many of them have had ancestors associated with the British Raj. The book White Mughals explores this period and people in extensive detail. For some specifics, recall that Robert Jenkins, later Lord Liverpool, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 10 years, 1817-1827, was 1/8th Indian by ancestry. The British actress Nicollette Sheridan is also 1/8th Indian. And finally, my friend Dan MacArthur clearly has South Asian ancestry, due to the same historical circumstances as the individuals above. This is perhaps the British equivalent of “Native American ancestry.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
  • George Jones

    Characterizing Jim Wilson as a mere “Tabloid Geneticist” out only for fame and fortune may be too severe. He has other partners at BritainsDNA which that label may apply more to. Let’s see if Mark Thomas in London will weigh in on this as he did with his earlier critiques of the people in this company. FTDNA and 23andme are not beyond hyping some of their unique stories either …. however Britains DNA gets my “PT Barnum” award at doing it best.

    I would say this “familial mtDNA analysis” of Prince William is speculative and is much less conclusive than a “direct mtDNA analysis” of Prince William. Some enterprising person (reporter at a London Tabloid) could easily get some of his DNA off of a discarded water bottle or other discarded material.

    I wonder what were the extra/novel R30b mtDNA markers Wilson isolated and if his mtDNA lab analysis is as sophisticated and in depth as is FTDNA’s newer full mtDNA test. He should be pressed to release these extra/novel markers to have a stronger story.

    Here are the Defining Markers for mtDNA haplogroup R30b:
    HVR2: 73G (152C) 263G 373G
    CR: 750G 1438G 2706G 4769G 7028T 8584A 8860G 11719A 14766T 15326G
    HVR1:

    Marker path from rCRS to mtDNA haplogroup R30b (plus extra markers):
    H2a2a(rCRS) ? 263G 8860G 15326G ? H2a2 ? 750G ? H2a ? 4769G ? H2 ? 1438G ? H ? 2706G 7028T ? HV ? 14766T ? R0 ? 73G 11719A ? R ? (152C) 8584A ? R30 ? 373G ? R30b ? 3316A 4232C 5442C 9242G 12714C 13161C 16172C 16278T (16519C)

  • razibkhan

    well, to be fair, not all peer reviewed research involves research or recomputation of underlying data even in this area :-) if they used their 250,000 marker set they probably know the % they should be getting with their reference sets. my own working modle is that the abuse isn’t in the immediate science, but in the way the results are spun out for publicity.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Doug Alder

    Leaving aside the science questions, why should anyone even care – in this day and age the idea of nobility is beyond the absurd.

  • Umi

    I wonder whether the Dutch royal family also have non-white admixture due to the Argentinian wife of the current Dutch king. She might have passed on Amerindian mtDNA to the heir apparent.

  • Some Perspective

    There was an Indian Hindu colony in ancient Armenia. At the beginning of the Christian era the members of this community were converted to Christianity and assimilated into the general Armenian community.

    • razibkhan

      in the future these sorts of comments need to be backed up by some literature or reference citation so i can actually dig into it. seeing as how there were early modern hindu colonies (merchants) in baku, it’s not implausible. but plausibility is not probability.

  • razibkhan

    maybe. i actually asked some friends who are geneticists and they also expressed some ambivalence, because mtDNA is not nuclear DNA. your maternal ancestry is obviously mostly in your autosome and on the X.

  • Paul Conroy

    Vincent,

    I don’t know about frequencies of R30b, but looking at my 1,650+ 23andMe Results, I see one “cousin” who is R30a and is a South African, living in Israel.

    I have a number of relatives who are “Cape Colored” in South Africa, and so a 3-way mix of European, African and Indian. So R30a is likely of Indian provenance here.

  • Helen Riding

    Great article thanks, but I wish your headline and the text did not confuse the word “ancestry” with DNA. They are not the same thing and only add to the confustion.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »