Monday, July 30, 2012

Armenia, DNA and Ethnicity

   Self-identity, what culture or ethnicity do you identify with?  Your current culture?  Your immigrant ancestor’s culture?  Perhaps you identify with a culture buried deep in your DNA.

   See this article as a great primer on the differences between - Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Heritage, and Culture.

   Culturally, my wife is an American.  I could even say that she is a New Englander.  She grew up in an Armenian family, but she doesn’t know the language.  What she does identify with is the food and family.  Her immigrant grandfather, Reuben, was born in Turkey.  Turkish was his nationality, but culturally he associated deeply with the Armenian heritage that was strong in Adana.

   Nations redraw their lines, form and dissolve over the course of decades.  If you had lived in central Europe over the past few hundred years, one day you might be French and the next day German, only to be French again in a week.

   How long does it take us to lose our ethnicity?  If I took my family to Armenia and we stayed there for three or four generations, would they think of themselves as Armenian American Armenians.   I doubt it.  Each generation would absorb the culture around them to a greater degree.  Given enough time, some descendants might think that it was just family mythology that they ever lived in the US.  We’ve always been here.

   We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants.  That goes for the entire planet.

   If I look at another side of my wife’s family, they’ve been in America for over 350 years.  Their immigrant ancestor, Edward Clark, was ethnically English.  In turn, Edward’s immigrant ancestor was Norman and the immigrant ancestor before that was Danish.  I can keep going back, Iberia, Asia and Africa.  Which culture should they identify with?  Nationality is fleeting and uncertain.  Ethnicity is in your genes, embrace all the cultures of your ancestors.

   About 50,000 years ago, there were no humans in Armenia, or for that matter, Asia Minor.  Over the intervening years, folks trickled in from every direction.  Let’s look at the current distribution of Armenian y-DNA.

J1c & J2a
Arabic / Semitic
I2a & R1a

   This is a snapshot of modern Armenia.  Without analyzing individual haplotypes from this dataset, it is difficult to determine which group arrived first.  More than likely each group had multiple waves of immigration across history.  I’ve created the map below for you to get a feel for the origin and flow of the major haplogroups.

   It’s not unusual for groups J1c, J2a and G2a to have high percentages.  Those groups also have their origins in that region.  The large portion of R1b can be attributed to the crusaders passing through for hundreds of years.  Many of the taverns in this region have signs that say, ‘Alexander the Great slept here’.   His empire would have contributed the E1b DNA as they conquered eastward and the Dravidian DNA flowed back toward Greece with the spoils.  The Roman and Byzantine influence brought the Balkan DNA.  The Huns also stopped by on their way to conquer Eastern Europe.

   My wife can count Armenian as part of her heritage, with roots on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  Someday I will find her living Armenian cousins in order to get DNA tests.  Those results will allow me to identify her deeper ancestral ethnicity.

   On another line, she is descended from four generations of Sea Captains from Maine with Scottish origins.  Should my wife self-identify with all the cultures of her ancestors?  Probably not.  Should she learn about and understand all those cultures?  Definitely.  We can pick and choose the best parts of our ancestral heritage and create our own unique ethnic identity.  She has a love for the ocean that didn’t come from any early family experience.  It’s in her DNA.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Attila, Native Americans and DNA: A Hunny Story

   Recently at a conference, I was talking to some folks about DNA and the migration of tribes based on haplotypes.   A question came up, "What about the Huns?"  I had to answer that I had never looked into the Huns. That night I started looking for evidence that the Huns left a genetic footprint.

   I usually take the DNA of an individual and work backwards to find their origins.  In this case, I started with the origins and tracked forward in time.  The Huns were a nomadic tribe of people that arrived from eastern Asia around 150 AD.  They built a European empire that lasted until 469 AD.  The height of the empire was under the reign of Attila.

   The Huns were not a homogeneous group.  They integrated those that they conquered.  The Alani and the Ostrogoths were a few of the assimilated groups.  Their DNA would have been eastern European, perhaps R1a, G2a, I1 or I2 and a minority proportion, but the core and the majority of the Huns, based on historical reference, would have been East Asian.

   By the end of the Hunnic Empire, the Huns had spent over 300 years, 12 generations, in Europe.  Unlike the later Mongol invaders, the Huns had no Asian home to return to.  They, in turn, were assimilated into the cultures they once ruled and left descendants across Europe.

   Most likely the Huns were from eastern Asian origins.  That limited them to haplogroups C – ‘Mongol’, D – ‘Tibetan’, N – ‘Han/Finn’, O – ‘Manchurian’ and Q – ‘Altaic’.  The ethnic descriptions that I’m using are overly simplistic, just enough to give you a feel for the possible cultures present.   I surveyed DNA record sources for Russia and Europe, looking specifically for these haplogroups.  Groups D and O were isolated individuals, easily attributed to Silk Road travelers who settled in Europe.  Group C was predominantly C3 and related to the later Mongol invasion.  N was either heavily Finnic or a few isolated Siberian individuals.  Q was a different story completely.

   Haplogroup Q has origins in Siberia, most likely north of the Altai Mountains.  Q is also the origin of the Native Americans.  The majority of the Native America haplogroup is Q1a3a.  What I found was a significant Q1b and Q1a2 population in Eastern Europe.  When I map the Q1b genetic footprint using TribeMapper they fall exactly north of the Danube River and east of the Rhine.  This corresponds to the territory of the Hunnic Empire.  The Q1a2 group maps to Hungary, the royal seat of the empire.

   These Q1b and Q1a2 are close-knit tribes each with common ancestry within the last 2100 years.  The timing of their common ancestry and their geographic footprint make a strong argument that these two Q groups were the genetic core of the Hun invaders.

   A few caveats.  Not every European in haplogroup Q is a Hun.  There is a population of Q1a3a, a closer relation to Native Americans, living in Sweden that doesn't correlate.  Not every Hun is a Q, there are bound to be some other groups mixed in like the isolated N individuals as well as the folks the Huns picked up along the way.

   When we think of the Huns, probably the first person who comes to mind is Attila.  Attila was the second to last ruler of the Huns at the height of the empire.  He died in 453 and the empire crumbled in 469 AD.  There is no evidence to say that Attila fits into either the Q1b or Q1a2 group.  If I had to pose a theory, I would say that Attila is Q1a2, part of the royal class of Huns living in Hungary.

    The Huns (Q1a2 & Q1b) and the Native Americans (Q1a3a) share a common Asian ancestor around 18,000 years ago, most likely from the Altai Mountain region.  Not all of the ancestral Q1a3a traveled to the new world.  Some remained in the old world and are found across Siberia and into Scandinavia.  If you live in the Americas and you have been tested as a Q, don’t automatically assume that you are Native American.  Get a deep clade SNP test for confirmation.

   The combined evidence of DNA, geography and history leads to the conclusion that at the end of the Hunnic Empire, the core East Asian Huns assimilated into the eastern European cultures.  They left behind a strong genetic footprint in the same territory that they historically inhabited.  The next time I’m asked, “What about the Huns?”  I can point to Europe and say, “They’re still there.”