National Geographic Society Newsroom

DNA tests reveal origins of Charles Darwin

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, the “Father of Evolution,” DNA technology has helped determine who his ancient ancestors were. Portrait of Charles Darwin as a young man. DNA samples from his descendant have revealed the deep ancestry of the “Father of Evolution.” Photograph by James L. Stanfield Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Chris Darwin,...

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, the “Father of Evolution,” DNA technology has helped determine who his ancient ancestors were.


Portrait of Charles Darwin as a young man. DNA samples from his descendant have revealed the deep ancestry of the “Father of Evolution.”

Photograph by James L. Stanfield

Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Chris Darwin, 48, who lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, took a Genographic Project public participation cheek swab test analysing his “Y” chromosome.

According to Spencer Wells, project director of the Genographic Project, a research partnership between National Geographic and IBM with field support from the Waitt Family Foundation, Darwin’s deep ancestry shows his ancestors left Africa around 45,000 years ago.


Chris Darwin swabs his cheek. The DNA sample collected thus was used to trace his and his illustrious great-great-grandfather’s deep ancestry.

Photograph by Patrick Riviere

“I couldn’t wait to find out my family’s deep ancestry. I suspect that most people would be fascinated to know their family history over the past 60,000 years. After all, how can you understand who you really are, if you don’t know where you have come from”, Chris Darwin said in a news statement released by the Genographic Project today.

Haplogroup R1b

The test revealed that Chris Darwin, and therefore his paternal great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, are from Haplogroup R1b, one of the most common European male lineages, the release explained. “Approximately 70 percent of men in southern England belong to Haplogroup R1b, and in parts of Ireland and Spain that number exceeds 90 percent”, Wells said.


The Genographic Project’s test results show that Darwin’s paternal ancestors would have migrated out of northeast Africa to the Middle East or North Africa around 45,000 years ago, Genographic said. “Diverging from this Middle Eastern clan, a new lineage emerged in a man around 40,000 years ago in Iran or southern Central Asia. Before heading west towards Europe, the next mutation, which defined a new lineage, appeared in a man around 35,000 years ago.

Men belonging to Haplogroup R1b are direct descendants of the Cro-Magnon people who, beginning 30,000 years ago, dominated the human expansion into Europe and heralded the demise of the Neanderthal species.”

How a British satirist made fun of Charles Darwin in the 19th Century. Modern science reveals more about the great thinker’s deep ancestry than Darwin himself ever knew.


Chris Darwin, son of George (known as Erasmus), grandson of William (Billy) and great-grandson of the astronomer George, who was one of Charles Darwin’s 10 children with Emma Wedgwood, migrated to Australia from England in 1986.

A Blue Mountains guide and adventurer, (Chris often takes tourists on the Charles Darwin walk through the mountains to Wentworth Falls), Chris said that he was excited to find out his family’s history.

Chris Darwin’s mother’s ancestry

The Genographic team also tested Darwin’s mitochondrial DNA to provide an insight into his mother’s genetic heritage. The result shows Darwin is part of Haplogroup K — and likely directly descended from the women who crossed the rugged Caucasus mountains in southern Russia to reach the steppes of the Black Sea.

“What National Geographic and IBM are doing with the Genographic Project is incredibly important. The project is one way to show us the true story of humanity, of how we migrated across the world and that we are all related, tracing back to a small group of men and women who lived in Africa”, Darwin said. “There are over 100 direct descendents of Charles Darwin who attended a family reunion in London last March,” he continued. “I can’t wait to share this with them.”


The Genographic Project seeks to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species and answer age-old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity. At the core of the project is a global consortium of 11 regional scientific teams following an ethical and scientific framework and who are responsible for sample collection and analysis in their respective regions.

Members of the public can participate in the project by purchasing a public participation kit (US $100) from the Genographic Web site, where they can also choose to donate their genetic results to the expanding database.

Sales of the kits help fund research and support a Legacy Fund for indigenous and traditional peoples’ community-led language revitalization and cultural projects.

There are currently 265,000 public participants who have actively consented to be included in the scientific database, according to the Genographic Project. “With the quantity of data and new methods of analysis that the Genographic Project team at IBM are pioneering, we are able to deliver insights into our past that were simply not possible before,” said Ajay Royyuru, the leader of IBM’s computational biology team.

The Genographic Project’s consortium including the principal investigators from around the world are in Sydney this week for their annual scientific conference. Among the population geneticists are Australian principal investigator, John Mitchell from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and Alan Cooper, who heads up the Ancient DNA Centre at Adelaide University, as well as Sydney-based ethicist, Simon Longstaff, who chairs the global advisory board for the project.

Read more on BlogWild: Genographic Test Reveals Darwin’s Ancestry 

You might also be interested in:

Evolution Webcast: Celebrating 150 Years of Origin of Species

On the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, November 24, 2009, Charles Darwin’s revolutionary, evolutionary ideas are still shaping modern science as it moves into the future

Darwin Devotees Make “Father of Evolution” Facebook Superstar

Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life joined a Facebook group devoted to the celebration of this year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of the “Father of Evolution,” Charles Darwin. Now the organizers of the Facebook group are hoping hundreds of thousands more will sign up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species.

The World Before Darwin

Travel back in time to visit “The World Before Darwin,” courtesy of a free webcast lecture with Everett Mendelsohn, emeritus professor at Harvard University. Mendelsohn explored the milieu in which Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago, reveal its other evolutionary thinkers, and shed light on skeptics from the worlds of religion and science.

Darwin on Variation

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Columbia University professor Jonathan Weiner delved into Darwin’s evolutionary theories in the webcast lecture “On Variation.”

Weiner tracked Darwin’s footsteps to reveal how the Father of Evolution deduced that many species are descended from common ancestors, and that the variation among them evidences their evolutionary journeys of natural selection.

Darwin, DNA, and The Making of the Fittest

Explore evolution in a way Charles Darwin couldn’t imagine–by delving into the DNA evidence of each species’ unique evolutionary journey. Geneticist and author Sean B. Carroll explained how DNA holds a living record of the evolutionary adaptations that allow species to evolve and thrive in diverse environments all over the Earth.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn