DNA crisis continued: The bigger picture

Yes, I’m still having a bit of a crisis over the DNA results until things get resolved. It’s not just the being told that my half-brother and I are “not closely related” part. At the same time, I had a huge part of my presumed heritage shift.

As I’ve mentioned before, the test said that I’m a lot more Irish than I thought I was. I knew that I was at least half via my mother, but now that number is over sixty percent. Meanwhile, there’s no German, English, Welsh, Scottish, or French to be found despite presumed genealogical records.

Instead, I have a ton of Scandinavian and some Italian and Basque.

Let me put this in context for my non-American readers. One of those things about us that mystifies visitors from other countries is how we answer the question, “What are you?”

Ask someone from Britain that, and they’ll either say British or declare themselves to be English, Welsh, Scottish, etc. Same thing if you ask somebody in pretty much any other country. The country is the answer.

But ask an American, and the answer you’ll get will basically be a list of where their ancestors came from for as many generations as they know. We can’t help it. More than almost anywhere else, we are an immigrant nation, and as each new immigrant group arrived, its members found themselves and formed their own communities until they spread out and assimilated while frequently still preserving their own cultures — and this country is all the stronger for that latter part.

My mother’s immigrant Irish ancestors, for example, wound up predominantly in upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania, largely because the land and climate reminded them of home. My family’s original locales were Schenectady and Binghamton in New York, and the general Scranton area in Pennsylvania. But I don’t have to tell fans of the American version of The Office where that is.

And while I do have records showing that my father’s ancestors on his paternal grandfather’s side came here by boat from Germany in the 1880s and those on his paternal grandmother’s side got here from England a week after the Pilgrims (more or less), and while at least the German bunch followed the typical immigrant pattern for their group, still — nary a drop of German or English blood.

Which is very strange, because both sides of my dad’s family followed the typical German pattern, particularly the ones who arrived before the Civil War. That pattern was to settle in a big city on the East Coast, frequently in Massachusetts, then be lured west in order to increase a territory’s population to the point that it could become a state with the ultimate goal being to declare it an abolitionist state, aka “no slavery here.”

One of my great-great grandfathers came west in exactly that way, becoming one of the founding residents of Kansas, as well one of the founders of his home county and, ultimately, mayor of his adopted home town.

He also happens to be the one ancestor whose genealogy I can trace back the farthest, to the late 15th century on many branches. And the disturbing part about that is how utterly British his roots were — both English and Welsh.

Or so I thought.

But maybe that’s exactly the point. My ancestors may have come from a country while they weren’t necessarily originally from there. It only takes one marriage with a male local to bury a family name, after all.

Look at it this way. Let’s say a couple moves from Japan to America. A few generations later, one of their daughters marries the grandson of immigrants from Brazil and takes his name. The two of them eventually move to France.

A couple of generations later, a descendant of theirs, who only knows that their ancestors came from America, does the DNA test, expecting to maybe find Native American or mostly European ancestry. Instead, they come up as Japanese, Brazilian, and maybe a couple of other things.

I think that might be the same effect going on here, and a reminder that humans have always been immigrants. In my case, the Scandinavians were the Vikings, and they’d been adventuring far and wide since at least the 10th Century. Hell, they may have even been the first Europeans to visit America.

Okay, I do know that “Viking” was more of an occupation and not a distinct group of people, and that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians all partook of the job from time to time but that it was not really their identity. However, like sailors and soldiers throughout history, it was a profession that brought people in it into contact with other cultures in distant lands, and sometimes they stayed.

This was certainly the case in the British Isles, to the extent that for a while, the King of the Britons was actually Danish. Sure, they called the first one Canute, but that’s just an Anglicization of the name Knut.

Side note: When a Dane pronounces that name, it can get awkward fast, because if they introduce themselves, it can sound exactly like they’re saying, “Hi, I’m nude.” Then again, since Scandinavians are notoriously sexy, that’s not such a bad intro after all.

Anyway, the Vikings had a very advanced and complex culture, bringing people and products from far-off lands back to Scandinavia and then to Europe. It’s not hard to believe at all that at some point some Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes made their way down into Europe, and thence to England, Wales, and Germany.

But… they may have also maintained their own communities for generations, just as my early immigrant ancestors to the U.S. did. Hell, it really wasn’t until my generation that my mother’s side of the family started to branch out and marry people who were not Irish Catholic. My mom was one of the first, although it’s still not all that common among them.

However, this may be exactly how I managed to have ancestors who came from certain countries but who were actually not natives of those countries and didn’t mix enough with the locals to have an impression left on them.

Still… I’d really love to know how an Italian and a Basque managed to sneak in there somewhere around the time of my fifth great grandparents and plant their flag, as it were.

Is it weird to have the total rug-yank that tells me, “Hey, you aren’t what you thought you were but, on the other hand, you’re kind of this much cooler thing?” Oh yeah. Very challenging and confusing. I mean, I thought I was supposed to be this brooding, gothic Teuton with no sense of humor mixed with a tight-assed and very class-conscious white person crossed with another bunch of white people who were totally erased by the aforementioned bunch of white people. (Hint: The word we’re looking for for the latter group is the Welsh.)

But, instead, it turns out I’m descended from Sexy Scandinavians — and no one can honestly say that they’ve ever met an ugly Norwegian, Dane, or Swede.

So I can live with that combo. Two thirds short and bandy-legged bullshit artists who love to drink, talk, joke, and fight, and one third tall, strong, ambitious, and tough-assed bastards with great hair who nonetheless could moonlight as supermodels when they’re not conquering other lands through sheer force of personality.

Not a bad trade-off, I suppose. Still, it would be nice to get to the truth, so the next step for my half-brother and I will be to have them run the Y-DNA tests on both of our samples. This is the one that will look specifically at the genes we inherited from our fathers and will tell us definitively whether we have the same one.

Of course, the version we want to run is a bit pricey right now, so we’re hoping it goes on sale for Father’s Day, meaning that this saga will have another chapter. To be continued.

Image source: Wolfmann, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.


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