Building bridges and walls through ancestry

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Bridges and Walls, Snakes and Ladders

I've noticed two perspectives within the broad scope of genealogy where it ties to population genetics.

  • Some people, those with nationalistic, right wing political views, frequently look for what divides their ancestry from others.  What defines and ties them to a historical population, or even to a land.  They may well want to prove connection to a romanticised historical group within their part of the world.
  • Others - those of a more international, liberal persuasion, instead tend to look for what unites them with other peoples alive today - what connects them within the community of humanity.

I have to confess to being more of the latter.

On Paper

I started out with a pretty well researched paper genealogical record.  A family tree.  A family history.  Researched through oral history, interviews, parish records, state records, and then on to digitalised records in more recent years.  A genealogical database of 1,570 individuals for my kids, and 207 direct ancestors recorded for myself - going back to the 1680s.  My recorded ancestry was 100% English - dominated by the County of Norfolk.  The majority of present day English perhaps have some non-English ancestry, perhaps Irish or Scottish, or something a little further afield.  I didn't find any.  All English surnames, and English denominations.  Some of those surnames however, did echo rather more ancient immigration from across the North Sea.

Autosomal DNA Testing

Autosomal DNA testing for ancestry provided a bit of a surprise.  I took a 23andMe DNA test, along with my mother, who's results I phased with to provide more accuracy.  The 23andMe Ancestry Composition analysis in standard mode didn't simply see me as English, or even as British.  It did see me pretty much as 100% European.  Not a hint of Africa nor Asia within the past several hundred years.  It saw 86% of my autosomal DNA as definitively North-West European.  However, it could only see a mere 17% as distinctly belonging to British & Irish.  So, the ancestry test of my autosomal DNA certainly agreed that I was European, NW European even, but couldn't be sure on how English or even British that I was.

23andMe Ancestry Composition in the very unreliable speculative mode rated my British/Irishness at only 37%.  The highest percentage of focus - but it saw 22% of my autosomal DNA ancestry as French / German, 1% as Scandinavian, and 2% as South European.  So considering my 100% English ancestry on paper, autosomal DNA testing couldn't really be very sure about my ancestry.  Even in speculative mode, it had 34% of my DNA as "Broadly NW European", meaning that it couldn't be sure, but somewhere in that corner of that continent.

Fair enough I suppose.  I've lost a certain amount of faith in any autosome DNA tests for ancestry to be able to pinpoint the English.  You see, even ignoring recent waves of immigration of Irish, Scottish, French, Germans, West Indians, South Asians, etc, etc.  The truth is that the English were already a very admixed population even 1,500 years before present.  Already a mixture of prehistoric populations, immigrants from across the Roman Empire, then from across the North Sea, from the Low Countries, Northern Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, etc.  23andMe claim that their product reflects your ancestry 500 years ago.  No it does not.  It uses modern reference populations.  Genes have been circulating around the World for a long time.  Autosomal DNA tests for ancestry have really improved.  They are pretty good now for recognising a Continent - sometimes even a corner of a continent, as the source of some ancestry.  But they cannot pinpoint many populations with accuracy, and they cannot pinpoint the English.

So, my paper record said English.  My 23andMe autosome DNA test said North-West European, but couldn't even pinpoint British.  It suggested admixture.  It did however - this is important - only see me as European.  Okay, in Standard Mode, it did have a tiny 0.3% that it failed to assign to Europe, nor anywhere.  It did not see Asian.

Haplogroup DNA Testing

Haplogroups follow two narrow lines of ancestry.  The Y follows the direct paternal line, the MT follows the direct maternal.  They do not represent the bulk of your ancestry.  However, they can tell a more accurate, and longer term story.  Ancestry can be lost in Autosomal DNA within a few centuries.  In addition, it gets messed up through recombination.  Not so with the two haplogroups.  So where did mine come from?


There is an awful lot that we will know in future about our haplogroups, that we don't yet know - especially in the case of mt-DNA. However, we do know that my haplogroup, H6a1, did not originate in Europe.

H is common in Europe, and it most likely originated either there, or in South West Asia, during the Upper Palaeolithic. H6 did not originate in Europe.  It may be West or Central Asian in origin.  H6a1 has not been recovered in any ancient DNA within Western Europe.  However, it has been recovered in the DNA of the Yamnaya on the Eurasian Steppes.  For this reason, it is generally thought - based on evidence so far, to have been brought into Western Europe during the Early Bronze Age, by the expansion from the Eurasian Steppes at that time.

It isn't too fanciful - based on this evidence, to imagine that my distant grandmothers belonged to tribes of Early Bronze Age pastoralists, living on the Steppes of what is now the Ukraine.


This one has been a cracker for me.  Anyone that has followed my blog, might be getting bored with this.  I've thoroughly tested my Y-DNA.  It's not an exaggeration to suggest that it is quite likely Ancient Persian.  Based on current evidence, I believe that my Y-DNA arrived into England within the last millennia - probably between 350 and 800 years ago.  I'm still working on it's most likely route here.  I do believe that it was most likely still located in the region of Iran circa 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.  My nearest 111 STR match is to a guy in Australia who's paternal line lived in Birjand, Eastern Iran.  We shared a common ancestor around 2,000 years ago.  My terminal SNP is shared on record with only one other man so far - in the world.  He was a Balochi speaker that lives in Makran, SW Pakistan - close to the border with Iran.  The Balochi are believed to have migrated from North Iran between the 5th and 14th centuries AD.

Nomad camp, at the Zagros Mountains, Iran.  By C Whitely on Flickr under Creative Commons License.

A bit more distant, I have a Y cousin in the USA that maybe I shared a common ancestor with 3,000 years ago.  He is of Azores Portuguese descent on his Y line, but he carries a distinct STR marker that has been associated with the Parsi, who migrated to India and Pakistan, but originated in Iran.

And going further back, the Y haplogroup L most likely originated within the area of Iran and Iraq, during the Ice Age.  It would have been carried by Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in that region.  13,000 years, I shared grandfathers with two Pontic Greek Y cousins, who's ancestors lived in Trazbon, Eastern Anatolia.  Maybe one Y ancestral son headed to the Black Sea, the other settled at the Caspian Sea?  The Ice Age was drawing to a close, but with a ferocity and climate instability that drove bands of people apart and into refuges at that time.

The Parsi connection keeps hinting.  They descend from Persians that worshiped the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.  I've just seen a Y haplogroup study of men in Pakistan.  The background level of Y haplogroup L-M317 sat at 1.1%.  However, in the sample of Parsi men there - it spikes up to 13.3%.  That might not be the route however, of my Y line.  The SK1414 SNP turned up in that same study, but that was found on the Makrani Boluch man that was tested L-M317, not in the 12 Parsi men that also tested positive for L-M317.


I prefer bridges to walls, and that is what I got.  My paper ancestry said 100% English - much of it East Anglian.  I'm quite proud of that, but I'm equally proud of my more distant ancestors that emigrated here.  I've found North Sea admixture, from places such as the Netherlands and southern Scandinavia.  I've found a grandmother in a Bronze Age tribe of pastoralists in the Ukraine.  I've found ancient Persians, descending from hunters of Ibex in the Iran / Iraq region.  I've found distant cousins in the USA, Iran, Pakistan, Australia, and Turkey.

One species, one family.