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 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.


What DNA really stands for: Discovering Nasty Actualities

When I first got into genealogy years ago, I remember one of my mother’s brothers (and my favorite uncle ever) saying that he decided to “Never shake the family tree for fear of what skeletons would fall out of it.” To me, that had actually been the most interesting part and over the years I have been digging, I’ve actually found a lot more fascinating and heroic characters than I have scoundrels.

But perhaps the better advice would be, “When you look into your own DNA, it looks into you.” And you may not always like what you find.

I recently wrote about the results of a DNA test via Family Tree DNA that I took because my presumable half-brother’s girlfriend (HBG) had formerly tested his DNA there, and in the preliminary results, we did not come up as a match while the logical assumption would be that we’d have at least a 50% match and show as close relatives.

There was enough evidence in the results to conclusively connect listed second cousins and onward to relatives on my mothers side, as well as a direct link via a second cousin to my father’s maternal grandmother. Stranger still, my half-brother connected to someone who turned out to be the illegitimate offspring of a first cousin on our father’s side — but I did not.

My mom’s side of the family is totally normal, more or less, with generation after generation of huge Irish-Catholic broods. My mom was the odd exception because she was the only one to move away from the East Coast, marry a divorced non-Catholic (double gasp!) and only have one kid. All of her siblings who did have kids popped out multiples, as did those kids.

When I talk to my relatives on my mom‘s side or look at pictures of my cousins or second and third cousins, there’s no mistaking it. We are related. Hell, the sons of one of my aunt’s daughters-in-law look so damn much like me that it’s scary.

Also important to note: On my mom’s side of the family, I was born into the proper cohort, meaning that I’m around the middle of the age-range of all of my first cousins. We were pretty much all born within the same generation.

Meanwhile, on dad’s side — it’s a total mishmosh. My father’s mother was the second oldest of seven children — four boys and three girls, almost perfectly alternating until an extra boy snuck in between five and seven. Meanwhile my father’s father was the second youngest of six children, four of whom survived to adulthood, all boys. He was only about three months older than her.

They went on to marry very young — only a few months after they turned eighteen — and their oldest son, my uncle, was born ten days shy of nine months after they were married. This uncle, in turn, was the father of the first cousin who fathered the illegitimate child my half-brother showed up related to.

If you’re keeping score, at this point I know that I’m related to his mother, but possibly not to him.

My grandparents second and only other child was born three months and a couple of weeks after his older brother, and is still presumably my father, although he should technically also be my half-brother’s father, since he’s our direct connection.

Or we thought he was.

Now, my uncle and my father both got married fairly early as well — each of them was about twenty at the time. My uncle had two kids, a boy and a girl, born almost seven years apart. My father had three with his first wife, the first two born about two years apart and the last one born about seven years later. That last one would be the half-brother in question.

Now, although my two grandmothers were born only six months apart, Mom’s mom spent a lot longer time making babies, and my mom came along a good decade into the process. Grandma was actually pregnant 13 times, but only eight kids made it to or much past birth. One of them died when he was about 12. Our of the other seven, two never married (one became a nun and the other was probably gay) and one was born with Downs Syndrome. He was the last one, born exactly four months after my grandmother’s 44th birthday and more than five years after his next oldest surviving sibling.

End result: about seven or eight years after my father’s youngest from his first marriage was born, he and his first wife called it quits. Then he met my mother, who was over a decade younger than him and they got married. I was their only child (to my lifelong annoyance) but the age difference and the fact that people on my dad’s side had had their kids early led to a very interesting phenomenon.

As I mentioned, on my mom’s side, I was born in the right cohort and matched all of my first cousins. On my dad’s side? Not so much. I was born a generation off, so that all of my first cousins were actually old enough to be my parents and I wound up being the same age as my second cousins and nephews.

One big consequence of this was that I did not grow up with my half-siblings, since they were all pretty much long gone by the time my infant brain developed the ability to hold onto memories. My half-sister felt more like a friend of my mom’s, since they were practically the same age, and all of her kids, who were technically my nephews, always felt like cousins growing up.

But during all of this, I never had any doubts that I was my parents’ only child, and that my half-siblings were the product of my father’s first marriage.

Although as I got older, I did learn of a few unsettling facts — mainly that my dad’s first wife was a raging alcoholic who died before 64 and who had a reputation for cheating on him. And, of course, the latest unsettling fact, or the appearance of such.

HBG and I weren’t sure what to do, so she contacted Family Tree DNA and got in touch with their quality control department to explain the situation. We both provided a list of people that each of us had matched with and that we thought the other one should have as well. They agree to re-examine the results, and finally got back to us.

Their conclusion was that my presumable half-brother and I are not close relatives at all. The next step is to pony up for a Y-DNA test, which will look at the paternally linked genes for each of us, as well as match us to more people who may have had this test as well.

But at the moment it’s still inexplicably weird because each of us has one genetic connection to our father, but it’s not direct. It links into the family line but does not pass through him. And I know that, on my part, it’s not an adoption situation because I definitely link to my mother. I could understand linking only to my father’s mother — maybe my mom lost that child and a niece or nephew of my grandmother had a baby they needed to give up. Except that, again, I am related to my mother, no question. So I can’t even figure out how that one would work unless one of my dad’s cousins became a sperm donor because for whatever reason my dad couldn’t make babies anymore.

But I was born before IVF was a thing. Maybe not before turkey-baster conceptions, but let’s not go there yet.

Image source: OpenStax Anatomy and PhysiologyOpenStax, (CC BY 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Well, this is awkward…

A while back, I took a DNA test and submitted it to the same place that my half-brother’s girlfriend (HBG) had sent his, and then waited. And waited. It took almost a month after they received my samples back to post the results and, well…

What I was expecting: About half Irish, the rest mostly German, British, and French. That was what all of the genealogical research HBG and I had done over the years told us, and in going from either of us to our common father and then to his parents and, at least, his father’s ancestors, was pretty well-documented, back to an ancestor with our family name born in Germany in the late 17th century.

That ancestor, Joannis Georg Bastian, moved from the village of Völkersbach in Baden, Germany to Gaggenau-Michelbach, also in Baden, where he died and where all of his descendants lived until the mid-19th century, when our common great-grandfather and family set sail to America.

According to the genealogist/historian who gave me the treasure trove of records, descendants of all of my ancestors still live there, but it’s a small place, with only about nine families that have either interbred across distant cousin relationships or pounced on any marriageable foreign man to wander into the place.

German ancestry seemed pretty cut-and-dried, although my half-brother was clearly the first one of our direct line to do this particular DNA test. The closest relatives he got were someone listed ambiguously as a 1st cousin/nephew/uncle and that person’s daughter, a second cousin — but the name didn’t seem familiar at all.

He did show as having come from German, British, and French roots, which was to be expected. All the rest were clearly from his mother, to whom I’m not related.

So far, so good. Then my results came back with a few… surprises. First of all, they showed not a hint of any German, British, or French ancestry. None at all. Second, I was a lot more Irish than I’d thought. Not just 50%, but 64%.

And the rest of it? Scandinavian, Italian, and Basque.

Even weirder, neither my half brother nor the cousins he found showed up anywhere among my matches. But… I matched with a few people who were related to my father’s mother — the names matched exactly what I had in genealogical records.

My half-brother did not match any of them.

And he and I did not match each other at all.

So, at the moment, this seems to say that a large chunk of what I thought was my documented heredity may be completely wrong, although I’m still related to my father’s mother. And while my half-brother is at least related to my father’s line via a first cousin, he doesn’t seem to be related to my father’s mother. (Oh… I guess I’m not related to that cousin, either.)

It’s a conundrum with several weird implications. One is that our aunt, who married into the family, cheated on her husband, creating the son who had a one-night stand that made the cousin that showed the connection to my half-brother but not to me.

Second is that my half-brother’s own mother cheated, which is why he’s apparently not related to what should be our mutual grandmother.

Third is that my half-brother’s ancestors are legit and related to his dad in all regards, whereas I’m either adopted from a relative of my father’s mother or who knows what.

My mother did have a miscarriage during a previous marriage before I was born, and then I was allegedly two months premature — well, “allegedly” although it was documented on my birth certificate and since I was born eight months after they got married, they had to have conceived me within a few weeks.

Plus, after my dad died, I remembered finding old letters to my mom from former co-workers assuring her not to worry about me being premature, all dated just after I was born.

So there’s definitely a bit of a mystery to solve here. But here’s the summary: My presumable half-brother is clearly related to our presumable common father’s nephew, but not to his mother. Meanwhile, I’m related to my father’s mother, but not to his nephew.

As far as whether I am related to my mother, that’s inconclusive, because no one on her side of the family has done the DNA test, and my genealogical records for her only go back about four generations at most. But being way more than 50% Irish kind of indicates that this part might be right.

For the moment, though, I’ve suddenly found out that I have no WASP, Teuton, or Gaul in me, but I’m mostly Celt and Viking, with a dash of Roman and a dash of “weird loners who live somewhere between France and Spain and speak their own language.”

That would explain a lot about me, actually.

To be continued…

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.