However, there is a mysterious side to my mother's results: Her admixture. Her FTDNA myOrigins results include a full 1% which the program is unable to classify. That 1% is labelled as "Undetermined Region", meaning that it could be either European, Asian, African, Oceanian or Native American. In other words, the origin of this 1% of my mother's genetic background is completely unknown.
1% is, in theory, roughly equivalent to a 4th or 5th great-grandparent. It is a rather significant amount, especially in the context of other admixture analyses such as 23andMe which sometimes reports admixture down to 0.1% with good confidence. My mother, however, has not tested at any other company except FTDNA, so we don't have an official second opinion on her genetic admixture.
Ashkenazi Jewish?Immediately after FTDNA had updated their myOrigins analysis from version 1.0 to 2.0, my mother's results looked somewhat different. She did have 1% Undetermined Region, but she also had an additional region colorized on her map. It was the region around Poland and Ukraine. Those who are experienced with myOrigins recognize this blob as belonging to the "Ashkenazi Jewish" admixture category. And indeed, when I clicked on the blob, it was the Ashkenazi info box that appeared at the bottom of the screen.
The Ashkenazim, for those who do not know, are a distinct community within Judaism. They are genetically distinct enough for the genealogical DNA testing companies to be able to distinguish them as a separate ancestral cluster, just like Scandinavians, Finns, etc.
Here is a screenshot of my mother's results when she still had the mysterious Ashkenazi blob and info box on her map:
(The Ashkenazi blob is blue; the reason why it seems blurry and greyish in this screenshot is that my mother also has Eastern European admixture, and those two blobs are on top of each other.)
Could this blob mean that my mother's Undetermined percentage might in fact be Ashkenazi? Could it be that the amount was too small for the analysis program to assign it with confidence?
I wrote to FTDNA, and the reply I got was that this was a technical error. The blob on the map is now gone, "fixed" by the people behind the scenes. However, I still wonder why that particular error happened. I have not heard of anyone else who got mysterious Ashkenazi blobs connected with their Undetermined percentages. If you have experienced this, or if you know someone who has, please leave a comment below.
GEDmatchSince my mother has only tested at FTDNA, the only way to get a solid second opinion on her admixture is to use the calculators at GEDmatch. (Her data is on MyHeritage as well, but their admixture estimates are too coarse-grained to be helpful in this case.)
The GEDmatch calculator Jtest was specially built to estimate the likelihood of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage based on DNA. In Jtest, my mother gets 2.2% Ashkenazi, which is more than zero but below the noise threshold (around 5% for Europeans with no known Jewish heritage).
However, my mother has a very significant Ashkenazi segment on chromosome 15. It seems like most of her Ashkenazi admixture is concentrated in this segment. The fact that it is so concentrated, and not spread out in tiny bits (which could be statistical noise), strengthens the likelihood that my mother's Ashkenazi admixture is real.
Jewish matchesAdmixture results should always be taken with a grain of salt, but their veracity can be tested by looking at a person's cousin matches. If one is assigned a certain percentage of a biogeographic category, and also has a significant amount of matches whose heritage is from that particular ethnic group or area, this is an indication that the admixture estimate may be correct. What should be considered "significant" is, of course, debatable. Like all genealogy, DNA results are open to human interpretation and human error.
Interestingly, my mother does have quite a few matches of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. In her match lists at GEDmatch and FTDNA I have found a total of 10 matches who are very likely Ashkenazi Jewish, as well as an additional 11 matches who are possibly Ashkenazi Jewish.
Looking more closely, I have found a triangulating group of Ashkenazi matches on my mother's chromosome 2; the triangulating segment is 14.1 cM long, which is not insignificant.
My mother does not, as yet, have any clearly Ashkenazi triangulation groups on the segment on chromosome 15. However, the fact that she has a number of Ashkenazi matches on others segments - and especially the triangulating group on chromosome 2 - does, in my opinion, make it more likely that my mother has actual Ashkenazi ancestry and that her Ashkenazi segments are real, including the one on chromosome 15.
Conclusion and further thoughtsIt is not completely proven, but looking at the genetic data, I believe it is likely that my mother has a semi-distant Ashkenazi Jewish ancestor, and that her 1% Undetermined Region at FTDNA might in fact be Ashkenazi DNA.
At least two of my mother's (relatively) certain Ashkenazi matches are from Russia. She also has Russian matches, 14 in total (on FTDNA, GEDmatch and MyHeritage), of which several triangulate in various groupings. This, combined with her 5% Eastern European admixture at FTDNA, indicates that my mother's Jewish ancestry probably comes from an intermediate ancestor who was of primarily Eastern European (non-Jewish) descent. 5% plus 1% gives 6%, which is equivalent to a great-great-grandparent.
This begs the question: Could my mother have an Eastern European great-great-grandparent of partly Jewish descent?
There is a family story that my mother's great-grandmother Signe was of Russian descent, but there is uncertainty as to whether that story is connected to our bloodline or to Signe's stepfather's family (the Walentin family from Denmark). However, in light of the genetic data, the Russia story is too significant to ignore.
On paper, Signe has no known Russian or other Eastern European ancestors. In other words, if the story is true, there must be a non-parental event (NPE) somewhere in her line. If we take FTDNA's admixture estimate at face value, then Signe herself must be the daughter of a Russian man.
I am exploring this possibility, but hard evidence is lacking. Several Russian men - including several Ashkenazi Jews - were living in Oslo at the time of Signe's conception (1885). One of these Russian men, a naval officer, was living in a hotel very close to the hotel where Signe's mother worked. If I ever manage to solve the mystery of our Eastern European/Jewish roots and the story of Signe's alleged Russian ancestry, I will definitely write a separate blog post about it!
If you have any thoughts or ideas, please do not hesitate to leave a comment.
UPDATE: After having corresponded with Jewish genealogists, I must conclude that it is unlikely that my mother has recent Jewish ancestry. If there is any Jewish ancestry, it must be quite far back in time.