Family History Again: What DNA Won’t Tell You.

A couple of Christmases ago, my fiancee bought me a kit from the Genographic Project at National Geographic.  Since I’m female, I can only test my direct maternal ancestors through mtDNA. I’d have to get a male relative to test my male ancestors through is Y-DNA.  The goal of the Genographic project is to trace human migration through genetic patterns, particularly focusing in on ancient patterns.  The project’s tests look primarily for a person’s most ancient group of ancestors, indicated through something called a “haplotype.”  I happen to belong to mtDNA haplotype U5a1a

This group first appeared, according to NatGeo, around 15,000 years ago in northern Europe.  This haplotype is present among the Saami people of northern Scandinavia. This haplotype is also present in some parts of the “near east,” including northern African, Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian populations. NatGeo scientists attribute the presence of the haplotype in such far flung geographical locations to a “back-migration” of populations heading back toward African after 15,000 years ago.  Several sources call this line the “oldest line of homo sapiens in Europe.” 

What this means in practical terms for someone trying to figure out how their families came to be “American,” like I am, this kind of genetic information might seem only partially useful, especially if the family record isn’t very complete.  That’s the situation I have for most of my maternal line.  There’s very little information on where exactly my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother came from “originally.”  I have a few clues that point toward England, a few that might point at Germany, but I’m not sure.  There’s been some rumor of French somewhere, but that rumor is incomplete and confusing.

Most of the maternal line’s paper record traces back to the east coast during the American Revolution, just as my paternal line does. However, unlike my paternal line, the maternal records basically stop pre-1800.  I don’t have a country to trace anyone to, much less know the religion or social class of these ancestors. 

Finding out my haplotype at least allowed me to start somewhere.  While U5a1a definitely shows up in Germany and other parts of Europe, its highest precentages exist in Scandinavia.  No surprise to anyone who has seen my pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes.  I am definitely the hefty nordic “type.”

The direct connection between northern Scandinavia 15,000 years ago and the Ozarks is still an kind of insurmountable gulf. I have no way of knowing how my maternal ancestors got from one place to another.  It’s important not to assume too much, really.  Statistically, it is more likely these ancestors come from Norway, Sweden, or Finland. However, they could just as easily come via Germany.  There could be a Viking connection to parts of England.

I can assume a few things, I think, in my investigation. First, it is true that people didn’t really move all that far from their homes traditionally unless there was a major impetus (like the opening of America for settlement by Europeans) to move.  Human migration happened slowly over time. When people moved, they tended to take a lot of their relatives with them. So a conservative view of movement isn’t completely out of the question.

Second, I can assume that knowing my ancient ancestors were among the first homo sapiens to settle in Europe after the retreat of the glaciers during the last ice age at least confirms some connection with a specific area of land.  It does not, however, confirm my connection to any specific culture or group, particularly since such classifications are fluid at best. Also, women often married into groups that shifted identification because of conquests or migrations.  

That’s what genetic testing is meant to do, really.  It won’t tell you that your grandfather converted to Quakerism for love, or that your grandmother came to America from Sweden.  It only offers the broad strokes, not the juicy bits that make up the story of a family’s life.    

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