Counting Chromosomes
A blog of random musings on genealogy, genetics, and history
Oxford Ancestors
Oxford Ancestors Ltd. to remain in operation

Important Update to This Article

On 3 May 2018, seven weeks after this article was first published, Dr. Bryan Sykes announced that Oxford Ancestors would not be closing as had been previously communicated. He posted the following to the company's website:

I have just received some very good news. Our labs at the University, which were threatened with closure for up to a year from July 2018 owing to redevelopment of the Science Area, have now been reprieved. In light of this I am very pleased to announce that Oxford Ancestors will remain open for business as usual.

I wish Oxford Ancestors new life and continued success. EW


Bryan Sykes, MA PhD DSc, launched the company Oxford Ancestors (Kidlington, Oxfordshire, England) in May of 2000, the same month that Family Tree DNA in Houston, Texas, first began selling genealogical DNA tests. These were the first two companies to offer genetic genealogy tests directly to the public.

Sykes just announced the closure of Oxford Ancestors. On the company's website he wrote:

Oxford Ancestors is closing down after 18 years. I have enjoyed those years immensely and it has been a rare privilege to have you send me your DNA from all over the world. We started because I wanted people to be able to share in the excitement of the research being done in university laboratories like my own in Oxford but rarely reaching beyond the halls of academe. That has all changed now and cheap DNA tests are widely available, even if their meaning is sometimes dubious.

He also noted, "In practical terms, all outstanding orders will be fulfilled in accordance with our Terms and Conditions and the databases will operate as usual for a few more months."

The company was founded due to Sykes's belief that his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve (see below), which was set for publication in the spring of 2001, would help create a market for direct-to-consumer DNA testing. The book, describing seven top-level mtDNA haplogroups of Europeans, was one of the first about ancestry and genetics to reach a popular audience. And Sykes was correct: it helped stimulate an interest in genetic genealogy that, as we know, has led to a significant retail industry with several of millions of people already tested.

Dr. Bryan Sykes
Dr. Bryan Sykes

Dr. Sykes, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, has been a trailblazer in genetic anthropology and genealogy. In 1989, in the journal Nature, he was the first to ever publish a study that used extraction and testing of DNA from ancient bone fragments. And every genetic genealogist I known has, at some point, read at least one of Sykes's books.

Criticism

Critique, particularly of methodology and procedure, dogged some of Sykes's projects. Most notable are:

  • A 1997 mitochondrial DNA essay of a tooth from the 9,000-year-old skeleton of the Cheddar Man, which results were called into doubt by Bandelt, et al. (2005) over possible sample contamination
  • The odd case in 2003 of Thomas R. Robinson, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Miami, who received a call from Oxford Ancestors telling him he was a yDNA descendant of Genghis Khan; later, confirmational testing by Family Tree DNA disproved this assertion. (Wade, Nicholas, "Falling From Genghis's Family Tree." The New York Times, 21 June 2006)
  • The 2015 book, The Nature of the Beast (later retitled, see below), which details investigation into yetis in the Himalayas and Bigfoot in North America through DNA samples from purported hair samples. (Leake, Jonathan, science editor, "Scientist Savaged for Bigfoot Claim." The Sunday Times of London, 29 March 2015)

These notwithstanding, Sykes has cemented himself as a pioneer and innovator in the use of DNA in anthropology and genealogy. On the Oxford Ancestors' website, Sykes concluded that he will be leaving England in the summer of 2018 to live abroad and to devote more time to his writing.

Books by Bryan Sykes