DNA TESTING COMPANIES are doing brisk business ahead of the holidays, and no one can doubt that by late January or February, the databases of firms like 23andMe and AncestryDNA will swell with new cousin matches.
I’ve had my DNA run at various companies including AncestryDNA, 23andMe, National Geographic’s Genographic Project, and Insitome, while uploading the data to Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, DNA.Land, and, of course, GEDmatch, to make use of their free tools. One has to ask, with all of that experience, can I communicate anything to newcomers?
The first thing I would advise is, know the history of the places your ancestors lived.
My mother’s father, Francis Abbatecola, was born in New York, but both of his parents were born in villages outside of Bari, Italy. Bari is a port city, and history tells us that it absorbed waves of Greek and Balkan settlers, as well as refugees from points farther east, in addition to Norman adventurers at a later date. Even today in Adelfia, the village where our relatives still live, one hears both French and Greek words in the local dialect.
When AncestryDNA revised my mother’s admixture results, her father’s side was rendered as 34 percent Italian and 18 percent French. MyHeritage, however, said she was just 9 percent Italian and 39 percent Greek. Other services tease a small amount of Scandinavian heritage out of her results, which makes sense, if she has a significant amount of Norman ancestry. This is part of her French ancestry. The fact is, the average “Italian” from Bari is likely to have Italian, French, Greek, Balkan, and other origins.
These admixture results are therefore not fixed in stone. My mother isn’t actually 34 percent Italian, or 9 percent. Her grandparents, however, were most definitely born outside of Bari. These results reflect and support the diversity of their deep ancestry. If she had roots in another part of Italy, she might have a different combination of ethnicities. An Italian from Bolzano, in the north, might show more Austrian heritage. An Italian from Calabria, like my father’s father, might have Iberian from the era of domination under the Aragonese. So these results tell you quite a bit about the deep past.
Something else I would advise for newcomers is to pay attention to your minor results. They might be telling you something.
Many advise just the opposite. They say these tiny amounts of Central Asian or Finnish are just “statistical noise.” That could be true, if you only see it once. But if you see it repeatedly, across many analytical tools, it’s likely it’s real. 23andMe, for instance, shows that not only do I carry a small amount of West African heritage, but so does my mother, and so do two of my daughters (I haven’t tested the third yet). Scientific studies confirm the presence of a small amount of West African ancestry across Southern Italian populations. We have every reason to believe that we do have West African heritage.
Likewise, I have seen South Asian turn up in some results. The earlier version of AncestryDNA had both me and my mother as 2 percent South Asian. Some say this is from having Romani heritage. DNA.Land informed me that I was 2.2 percent “Gujarati.” We already knew Southern Italy was a genetically diverse place. It’s most likely real.
But this leads me to my third and final point. If you are an admixed person — someone with ancestors from a variety of places — you can and will look, genetically, like a completely different person.
Consider my Genographic results. I was 46 percent Mediterranean, 31 percent Northern European, and 21 percent Southwest Asian by their reckoning. My matching population, though, was Bulgarian. When I ran matching population algorithms at GEDmatch, I inevitably would get something similar. I was Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian. On occasion, I would get Tuscany.
What was going on here?
First, I had more Northern European than your average Southern Italian due to my Irish and British ancestry. This raised the location of my signal from the south of Italy to somewhere just north of there. My deep Balkan ancestry, meantime, pushed me east. This is how someone of mostly Italian and British Isles ancestry becomes Bulgarian. There was no secret in the sauce here. My ancestors were not actually Bulgarians. Genetically, however, I looked like a Bulgarian.
The same is true for my daughters. Of mostly Italian and Estonian ancestry, the GEDmatch calculators have determined that they are in all likelihood Croatian.
It’s also why my paternal grandmother came to look “Eastern European” thanks to her Siberian and Amerindian ancestry. Not one of the major vendors were able to distinguish this signal. However, most of them did give her an Eastern European result that was unbelievable, according to her family history. She did have a grandfather from eastern Germany, but that still could, in no way, account for her 40 percent Eastern European result at Family Tree DNA. 23andMe told me she was about 2 percent Finnish and Estonian. DNA.Land told me she was 6.7 percent “North Slavic.” When I ran my father at DNA.Land, it said he was about 2 percent Amerindian and had no Slavic to speak of.
It was the calculators at GEDmatch that consistently separated this 2 percent Amerindian result in the data, something that Doug McDonald also detected in her Geno 2.0 kit data.
When I actually looked at the spreadsheets at GEDmatch though, I could see what was going on. Running Dodecad World9, which is widely considered to be a benchmark, workhorse calculator, I could see that in their reference populations, the average German person might show 0.5 Amerindian ancestry. The average British person has 0.2 percent. It wasn’t actually until you reached the Russian Far East — the Yukagir people of northeastern Siberia — that you found people who had as much Amerindian ancestry as my grandmother. Even the Ukrainians and Finns did not break the 1 percent threshold.
However, a related Siberian signal is present to a low-extent in these populations. Ukrainians have about 2 percent Siberian ancestry. This is how a woman of British and German ancestry wound up looking like a Ukrainian or Finnish person to the algorithms. Combinations of multiple ancestries made her look, genetically, like someone else.
Things to keep in mind as you anxiously await those admixture results. Just don’t get into a fight with a sibling about which of you is “more French” or “more Irish.” Not worth it.