Monday, March 25, 2013

The DNA of Thomas Jefferson: [Insert Shocking Title Here]

   I’ve been creative with the titles of my articles in the past. It is the first thing people see and it better be eye catching. It’s been said that I'm ‘intentionally provocative’. I enjoy writing about topics that make people think. I draw the line at faulty logic. Many times, I'll draw conclusions from circumstantial evidence, but I always strive for a logical argument.

   Thomas Jefferson was part of the rare y-DNA haplogroup T (formerly K2) and much has been written about his genetics. Not everything written has been logical in its assumptions. Sometimes the story lines misinterpret the underlying science.

“Was Thomas Jefferson the first Jewish President?”

“Thomas Jefferson was Phoenician.”

“If Jefferson was Phoenician, then Charlemagne was also.”

“Thomas Jefferson could have recent origins in the Middle East.”

“Thomas Jefferson’s DNA traced back to Egypt.”

   In these situations the writers took a single data point and ran with it out of context.

   When we look at Jefferson’s DNA and compare it to available records, we only get a handful of matches that don’t tell a complete story. Let’s look at the first headline – was Jefferson Jewish? He didn’t practice Judaism and he wasn’t raised Jewish. He does have one genetic cousin who is a Moroccan Jew, but you have to go back about 2,000 years to find a common ancestor. While haplogroup T does have origins in the Middle-East, I wouldn’t say that it is definitely a Jewish haplogroup. If Jefferson were J1b2, there would be a stronger case tying him to the kohanim Jewish paternal lines. Jefferson also has a Belgian genetic cousin. Perhaps the headline should have been – Was Thomas Jefferson the first Belgian President? Not that exciting. Probably wouldn’t have sold very well.

   Thomas Jefferson was a Phoenician! There are many articles attributing this statement to Spencer Wells as part of his In Search of Adam program in 2005. I can’t find one quote that actual has Wells saying this. In fact in 2008 Wells argued that the Phoenicians were haplogroup J2. Jefferson’s haplogroup T is found in the same places and at the same times as the Phoenician Mediterranean colonies. This may indicate that Jefferson’s ancestors travelled with the Phoenicians as a peer or as a slave. I don’t think that ethnicity by association works.

   If Jefferson was a Phoenician, then so was Charlemagne. This is just plain and simple poor logic and a misunderstanding of genetics. As I mentioned, it doesn’t appear that haplogroup T is Phoenician. While Jefferson may be a descendant of Charlemagne, he is not a direct male descendant. You really need to be a direct male descendant to prove that an ancestor has the same y-DNA. One sample would never be enough to prove Charlemagne’s DNA. Multiple descendant samples and very strong genealogies are required to come close to determining an ancestor’s DNA. You never know where a non-paternal event may pop up.

   Could Jefferson have recent origins in the Middle East? This writer never actually defines recent. We are left to wonder if the Jeffersons lied on their Naturalization applications. Based on ‘time to most recent common ancestor’ calculations, I’d put Jefferson’s ancestors in the Middle East about 3,000 years ago. I guess that’s fairly recent compared to the age of the universe.

   Jefferson’s DNA traced to Egypt! One record match does not make an origin. That one Egyptian genetic cousin actually clusters better with other Moroccan records. This could indicate a back migration from Morocco to Egypt for that one person. A rule of thumb when determining origins is to find clusters of records. Jefferson does have a cluster on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar. This provides a strong argument that Jefferson’s ancestors came through that region and perhaps loitered there for a while. That doesn’t make it his origin.

   How should we define Jefferson’s origins? It is important to define origins with context. Where in Britain did the Jeffersons come from? One biographer puts Jefferson’s family origins in Wales. Jefferson’s closest British genetic cousin comes from Yorkshire and the Jefferson surname has the highest distribution in Yorkshire. We are still talking about a single point of reference, so I won’t fall into the same trap and pronounce Thomas Jefferson a Yorkie. I can say that it appears that the Jeffersons were British and that the family had been in Britain for at least a 1,000 years. There’s just not enough data to be more certain.

   Jefferson’s tribal DNA does leave a sparse trail of breadcrumbs across Europe in the 1,500 to 2,000 years ago range. There are genetic matches that become increasingly more distant in Belgium, France and Spain. We could connect-the-dots and we probably wouldn’t be far off the migration path. For Jefferson’s European origins, we might say his ancestors were Iberian. If we go back another 500 years, the picture changes to a culture that traveled the Mediterranean. The genetic breadcrumbs are in Morocco, Sicily, Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey. We could talk about Jefferson’s haplogroup T origins. A cluster of data suggests a southern Arabian Peninsula origin about 8,000 years ago.

   If we continue backward in time, Jefferson’s ancestors came from East Africa just like everyone else on the planet. Which ‘origin’ you choose for Jefferson is completely up to your specific agenda. I use genetic genealogy to get a better understanding of the world that we live in and the things we have in common as one species. We may learn through DNA that our ancestors sacked Rome or pillaged the coast of England. That’s history, that’s fascinating, but that’s not who we are today. Unless you personally choose to embrace that history. Jefferson’s distant ancestors may have been Jewish, Phoenician or Egyptian, but that’s not who he was.

   We shouldn’t persecute for the sins of our ancestors or sit on the laurels of their accomplishments. We need to keep moving forward in a positive direction.



  1. Wow, this is wild! All these possibilities. I get that you need clusters of data points, but it's so much fun to speculate -- which is what makes your title so interesting. I like the "trail of breadcrumbs" metaphor. Cool.

  2. Egypt is in Africa not the Middle East!

  3. Working with the Pryor testers - Pryors in Virginia intermarried with both Jefferson's brother as well as the Woodson clan - we have good paper documents; and a systematic approach to my use of Y-DNA. We tested all Pryor lines in America. Not a random small sample in a single family of Pryor. I find them to make sure it is is both wide and deep research. The scientists are not genealogists. They work in the abstract world of corrolating marker values. It is a moving target. Causation is the focus of paper records. Paper telks of war and disasters and diseases that change as well as adultery and rape and incest. Y-DNA can mutate in a single father/son generation. This must be compared with first cousins; second cousins; third cousins to see if it is a fast or slow modal haplotype. The statistics are between the two extremes. The locality of DNA is dependent on an assumption them stayed in one place over the many generations. War and adventure spead seeds far and wide waaaaay back!!! Y-DNA is by definition not truly anchored in locality. mtDNA is moreso. Unless paper records anchor the tester's ancestor to a precise location 400 years ago on paper, they still need to further see if that tiny village was raped and pillaged by some invading force that decade on paper. Really rare Y-DNA means two things: cousins marrying cousins OR elimination through war/genocide/volcano/sterility/"daughtered out" etc., such that nearly all in a family or community died off in a single generation. Contact me about our use of context. My research is the best surname research by far, of all.

  4. I understand what is being said in this article but the whole point that is being overlooked is that Jefferson's ancestors did come from the eastern Mediterranean. If your argument is taken literally, then you can say that a modern Lebanese who has ancient Phoenician DNA of haplogroup J2 is really not Phoenician because the Phoenicians were a thousand years and more ago. Your argument is weak and Eurocentric.

  5. I suggest the title should be "How much DNA Do You Share With Thomas Jefferson".

    A person's genome consists of more than their Y DNA (for males anyway) or their mitochondrial DNA which is supposedly inherited only from the mother, although this may not always be the case.

    The remainder of a person's genome is a mixture of their parent's DNA which is a mixture of grandparent's DNA which is a mixture of great grandparents and on. In just four generations back there would be 16 distinct sources for a person's genome. By ten generations back there would be a maximum of 1,024 sources, for twenty generations back there would be more than a million and by 40 generations back there would be a trillion, which may be approximately the time of Charlemagne. Obviously you do not have a trillion distinct ancestors 40 generations ago. This occurs because not every contributor represents an individual that has a genetically distinct genome. Your ancestors, including your parents, share common ancestors, (hopefully many generations back). A family tree looks less and less like a tree and more like a web-like tapestry as distant cousins marry and share a set of distant grandparents.

    The further back in time you go, the number of common ancestors in a given living population increases, until the point where "all individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals.

    Based on mathematical models and genetic studies, it appears that all people who are descended from Western Europeans would share a common ancestor about 100 generations back or 3,400 years ago. This does not mean that everyone alive today is descended from just two people 100 generations back. I think what this means is that by 100 generations back, the family tree of everyone alive today would have the same very large group of ancestors who lived 100 generations ago.

    What this means is that we are all related regardless of Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA.

    Regardless of whether you share the same Y DNA of Thomas Jefferson, it is assured that you are related in some fashion to Thomas Jefferson's living descendants and may share some snippet of DNA from that ancestor. So I propose that the shocking title should be "How much DNA Do You Share With Thomas Jefferson" since you and Thomas Jefferson would likely have some DNA that originated from one of the many common ancestors you share who lived 100 or so generations ago (3,400 years ago).

    1. I'm new to much of this DNA researching. Today I found out my Mom is T Haplogroup and my father was R Haplogroup. I can't find much about it or really understand it much though.

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