Wednesday, 6 June 2018

What was passed down: My family's heritage claims

I've realized that although I've been talking and talking about my genealogical discoveries and DNA results, I haven't actually talked much about what my family told me about our ancestral heritage before I started on this journey of discovery. Our family stories are important because they reveal something about how our families view themselves in terms of origins and culture. It also gives clues to further avenues for genealogical research. I therefore dedicate this blog post to my family's heritage claims.

I use the term "claim" in the widest sense; I have included any ethnicity that has been rumored to be part of our ancestral heritage. Here is the full list, sorted by grandparent:

Paternal grandfather's side: Claimed only Norwegian heritage.
Paternal grandmother's side: Claimed Norwegian, Swedish and English heritage.
Maternal grandfather's side: Claimed Norwegian, Russian and Mongol heritage.
Maternal grandmother's side: Claimed Norwegian and Romani heritage.

Some of these claims have been proven true (my grandmother's Swedish ancestors were easily traceable, and the Romani connection has been proven through genetic genealogy). Some are uncertain (there seems to be genetic evidence for a connection to the United Kingdom, although our particular family story seems to be inaccurate).

Note that in spite of their long and strong connection to Norway, my mother's family does not identify as purely European in origin. In addition to Norwegians and Russians, family tradition tells us that we also have ancestors from Asia; more specifically, Mongols and Romani people (the latter having originated in India and mixed with many different groups along the way to - and within - Europe). The Mongol bit is something I only recently got confirmed as a real family story, and I find it extremely fascinating, especially since I've always loved Mongolian music.

Comparing claims and DNA

Let's do an experiment. If we go by family tradition only, I should be of Norwegian, Swedish, English, Russian, Mongol and Romani descent. Does this fit with my DNA results?

It fits surprisingly well! Look at my 23andMe results above. Norway is, of course, my main country of origin. My second strongest connection is to Sweden (not shown on this screenshot, but it's there). Then, interestingly, there also seems to be a discernible connection to the United Kingdom within the last 200 years, which seems to indicate that there might perhaps, somehow, be a kernel of truth in my grandmother's family's story of English heritage.

The Romani does not show up as a specific admixture (any South Asian admixture seems to have been "washed out" before it reached me), but autosomal matching and traditional genealogy has confirmed that we do indeed have Romani relatives with whom we share a Romani MRCA.

The small Eastern European and East Asian percentages are consistent with distant Russian and Mongol ancestors. These chunks of DNA are too small (i.e. the ancestries are too distant) for the algorithm to be able to confidently assign it to a subregion. However, 23andMe's ethnicity estimate is only supposed to go back about 500 years, so my Eastern European and East Asian ancestors must have lived within that timeframe.

I already knew that one of my two East Asian segments comes from my mother, and now that I've heard the Mongol story, I'm starting to wonder if perhaps both segments come from her. There is significant East Asian admixture on my father's side as well, so it's difficult to say for sure unless one of my parents tests at 23andMe.

To sum it up, the family claims can be said to hold up very well in light of the DNA evidence.

Forgotten heritage

Of course, many additional ancestral ethnicities have been uncovered through genealogical research, and some of them show up in my DNA results. I have Denmark as a Recent Ancestor Location at 23andMe, as well as Finnish and Southern European percentages. These results are fully consistent with my paper trail (Danes and Forest Finns in the 1600s and 1700s, and Italians in the 1500s). In addition, my Y-DNA has unveiled Scottish ancestry from the 1600s on my direct paternal line. This shows that my family members' knowledge was not complete, and that parts of our ancestral heritage were in fact forgotten during the course of time. I find it particularly noteworthy that nobody in my family had any knowledge of Forest Finn ancestry before I started researching, even though at least three of my great-grandparents are of traceable Forest Finn descent.

Any DNA from the additional ancestral ethnicities I have uncovered - notably our West African ancestry - has been "washed out" and is not visible in my results. It is, however, visible in the results of older generations of my family. Those older generations also have other mysterious admixtures which I hope, one day, to get to the bottom of.

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