I’m an archaeologist. As you’d probably expect, I’m fascinated by the past and the myriad events and decisions that led to the world we know today. Excavating sites and finding clues to our history may be hard, physical work, but it’s also invigorating and thought-provoking.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I’m also interested in family history. I’ve done extensive genealogical research on both my family and my husband’s, pouring over microfilmed birth, marriage, death, tax, and land records. I’ve spent more hours in a Family History Center than I can possibly remember looking at documents like this:
This is a breeze to read compared to some. Whatever you think of the French Revolution, it led to some excellent bureaucratic forms in both France and nearby countries such as Belgium. Really, compare that document above to this earlier Belgian record below:
Anyway, as one of our Christmas presents, my husband and I purchased DNA testing kits from Ancestry.com to see what kind of results we would get.
The historic records show remarkable uniformity in his mother’s and father’s lines. At least in the last few hundred years, the only admixture looked to be their marriage. And that’s exactly what his DNA test showed.
“Great Britain” threw us at first, since there’s no evidence of that in the records. But when you look at the map, you see it extends into France and Belgium. Now that makes sense. See those red dots? In the areas of overlap between Great Britain/Europe West and Europe West/Europe East? That’s where you find Belgium and the Czech Republic, and likely most (if not all) of his relatives in the last thousand years or more. Fully 79 percent of his DNA markers are from these areas.
Those other areas that aren’t shaded in? He shows traces of similarities with people currently living in those regions. These could reflect older ancestors. Think about those Roman soldiers ending up among the Celts in western Europe. Or Viking raiders making their way through Europe. It’s easy to see where they might have added their genes to the local mix.
As I waited for my results, I knew they would be different. I grew up knowing I was Irish, Serbian, Greek, and Czech. In fact, I thought I was half-Irish, although one great-great grandmother’s surname was Thomas, which hinted that there might be more to the mix than we knew.
As I did the research, my dad’s side showed some surprises. That “Thomas” surname came from Welsh immigrants. I also found English, Scots, Dutch, German, and French ancestry. My “Irish” grandfather wasn’t so Irish, after all. It turns out the McDowells were “Scots-Irish,” which basically comes down to Scots living in Ireland but not marrying into the local population. Right now, my paternal grandmother—who insisted her husband was Irish—is probably doing her best to keep me out of her corner of the Afterlife.
So what did I expect from the DNA results? A mix dominated by Eastern Europe and Italy/Greece with a healthy dollop of Irish and dashes of various other ethnic groups, including Scandinavian. Remember, a lot of Vikings left their DNA behind in Ireland and Great Britain.
Was I right? Sort of.
Ancestry.com assigns percentages to each ethnic group identified. We need to remember, though, the results show a statistical range, and Ancestry uses various methods to arrive at that percentage. But they will tell you the amounts could be more or less than that percentage. Also, we don’t necessarily inherit DNA equally from each ancestor. Things get mixed around in those chromosomes. That’s why we may look nothing like a sibling yet bear a striking resemblance to a great-great grandparent. Even knowing all of this, I was surprised to see the numbers they gave me.
So who leads the pack in my DNA?
Ireland at 41 percent. But I’m only a quarter Irish! (That paternal grandmother might just be gloating.) Italy/Greece is next closest at 20 percent. That sort of makes sense, although Serbia and Montenegro are included in that group, so I expected to see more. And rounding out “the big three” in me is East Europe at 18 percent. That also extends into Serbia/Montenegro and the Czech Republic. If you add those last two together, you get 38 percent, which is pretty close to 41 percent and maybe represents a decent breakdown of DNA from both sides of my family tree.
The high Irish percentage and low percentage for Great Britain and West Europe still seemed off. So I looked at the ranges and saw that Ireland’s range was from 27–55 percent. The lower end sounds more reasonable to me. Italy/Greece was from 12–29 percent. That’s a much tighter range, and maybe the higher end would be more accurate. The same might be true of East Europe, with a range of 9–27 percent. Even with ranges, Europe West and Great Britain wouldn’t seem to be a big part of my history at 0–22 percent. and 0–21 percent, respectively.
What Does “The Archaeology of Me” Show?
Just as in real archaeology, uncovering the past often raises more questions than it answers.
- Where is the Scandinavian DNA that I anticipated?
You see, I had another reason for expecting those Vikings to be in the mix. McDowell is simply a variant of MacDougall, which usually translates as “son of the dark foreigner.” More specifically, though, the reference is to dark-haired foreigners. It was a term used to distinguish dark-haired Danish Vikings from their fair-haired Norse associates. In essence, the name means “son of the Dane.” Hmm, I’ll bet you can imagine a few scenarios that led to the first appearances of the name.
So why does Scandinavian only appear as an “other area tested,” with a range of 0–2 percent? Maybe I simply didn’t inherit those particular genes. If my siblings or cousins did DNA testing, we might find higher traces in them. Or maybe they aren’t there, and one of my “McDowell” ancestors wasn’t really a McDowell. I think we all know how that can happen.
- Why does my husband, whose Belgian and Czech sides didn’t intermingle with other groups until his parents got together, show more ethnic areas than I do? Me, who knows her family comes from all over Europe and has been mixing up the gene pool for centuries?
I have higher percentages of some of those trace groups, but he has more of them. Maybe all that continuous mixing in my lines led to some of the older areas falling out of future generations. Whereas, in his lines, the early mixing may have stuck around as later generations stayed in one place and didn’t add more “outside” DNA to their gene pools.
- Do I really have Finnish/NW Russian or South Asian ancestors?
I’m not surprised by Caucasus because that’s where you find Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire spent a lot of time in my mother’s part of the world. Likewise, European Jew sounds plausible when you consider the Diaspora. It’s easy to imagine how genetic exchanges could occur. But the others? Well, it’s possible they aren’t part of my genetic past. The numbers are so low, they could be statistical anomalies. But there’s also a chance they’re hinting at even deeper levels of my ancestry. Just as some of us still carry known Neandertal genes, so too we can carry genes from early populations of Homo sapiens. Maybe ghosts of those ancestors still inhabit my genetic code.
Whatever the “correct” answers to my questions are, the DNA results fascinate me. They can help me connect with other researchers and help verify (or possibly disprove) the documentary evidence. Or they may suggest news lines of research for my brick walls. (I’m talking to you, great-great-great-great grandfather McDowell.) But the results also speak to me at a deeper level.
No matter the real percentages, or even the real meaning of “ethnicity,” I carry an inheritance from all of those ancestors who came before me. They don’t define me, but I owe my existence to them. Some of their acts, beliefs, and words might appall me while others might inspire me. I might have respected some of those men and women and run for my life from others.
But their hopes, fears, and desires and the events of their lives resulted, ultimately, in me. I wouldn’t be me without them.