Monday, June 11, 2012

Who's Who in the DNA Zoo

   When I talk to folks about y-DNA, I like to give the haplogroups an ethnic identity.  Rather than just saying that they are R1b, I also talk about their Western European or Celto-Iberian deep ancestry.  This helps them associate their DNA in a historical and geographical context.  It is important to understand that your nationality is just the outside of the onion, with many more ethnic layers beneath.

   I’ll pick on England for second, because they’re an island.  Roughly 10,000 years ago, nobody lived in England.  It was still recovering from the Ice Age.  Over the past 10,000 years, England has seen wave after wave of immigrants and invasions.  It’s only been the last 2,000 years that we can label these new comers as Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons or Normans.  If you consider yourself English, think again.  What is that next ethnic layer?

   If you want to know the answer, I suggest taking a DNA test to get your ancestral origins.  The approximate cultural identities that I use for y-DNA are:

  • C3 - Mongol
  • E1b – Greek / Egyptian
  • G2a – Caucasus / Etruscan
  • I1 – Scandinavian
  • I2 – Balkan / Danubian  
  • J – Phoenician / Semitic
  • N1c – Finn
  • Q1a – Siberian / Native American
  • R1a – Balkan / Slavic
  • R1b – Celtic (most common in Europe)

   I see these haplogroups consistently in Europe.  There are many more, worldwide.  Even these ethnicities are too generalized.  Throughout history, the R1b and I1 folks have shared geography from Iberia to Scandinavia.  It may be easy to describe someone as Celto-Scandinavian, but it is difficult to say Scandinavian-Iberian.  Location based naming conventions are tough to use for nomadic tribes.

   Perhaps you are English and have taken an autosomal DNA test.  As part of the at-DNA test, you get an ethnic population distribution.  It might say that you are 100% Scandinavian.  Now you have peeled back one more layer of your ethnic onion.  What flavor of Scandinavian are you?  This is where y-DNA can help place you in either the R1b, I2, N1c or even Q1a group.

   You could find out that you are R1b Scandinavian (with Celto-Iberian roots) and that more than likely your ancestors entered England as part of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.  One more layer peeled back.  I know that R1b men were among the Anglo-Saxons.  That doesn’t mean that they were a homogenous group.  Perhaps you are more Angle than Saxon or even Jute.

   Many of these nomadic haplogroups traveled the same river highways and lived in the same regions.  Today the genetic groups are thoroughly mixed in every country.  It is difficult to pick a time in history when we weren’t mixed.  History books are full of the great battles between nations.  Where is it written that two tribes co-existed, worked together and built a new common heritage?

   I can count Italian as part of my heritage, with roots in the mountains outside of Benevento.  That definition of me only has a 150-year history.  Prior to 1860, Italy was not a unified country.  3,000 years ago, my ancestors were living on the north side of the Alps in what is now Switzerland.  That doesn’t make me Swiss or does it?  7,000 years ago, my ancestors lived along the Danube River.  Now I’m Danubian.  Before that, we were in the Caucasus Mountains.  I sense a mountain theme going on here.  Perhaps I should call myself Caucasian?  My y-DNA haplogroup is G with origins in the Caucasus and my autosomal test indicates a close relation with the Adyghe or Circassian tribes of current day Russian Georgia.  A rough translation of the word Adyghe means ‘mountaineer who lives near the sea or between two seas’.  The Italian peninsula must have made a great home away from home.

   I could continue to peel back the layers of my ethnicity.  Genetically we could all say that we are African.  Who we really are and what culture we associate with has gotten a bit more complex.  My y-DNA is just a fraction of my identity.  I enjoy the music of Scottish bagpipes while drinking Irish beer or eating a nice slice of lasagna with a glass of German wine.  I have a craving to hike in the mountains, go figure.


  1. Very interesting post. I just had my autosomal results come in and was a bit surprised with my Scandinavian percentage. I wasn't thinking about how much deeper in the tree DNA shows. I self-identify as Irish/Italian, but as you point out that doesn't make sense in this context.
    You make a good case for getting a Y-DNA test to peel back the next layer. That's next on my list. Thanks

  2. Thanks for this post. It is a great primer as we just ordered a kit for my husband to test with. I'll be sure to favorite place this article so I can review it once his results are in. Much appreciated.