A few years ago, my husband and I landed in Amsterdam after 19 days in Spain and Morocco, and soon were strolling along the city streets gawking at the canals, the skinny houses, and the people. After a few minutes, he said, “I feel like I belong here. It seems like the Dutch are my people.” I hoped for Dutch genes too, but after traveling to Iceland in June, I also wished I had Icelandic-Viking ancestors.
For most of our lives we think about the present and the future. But something happens later in life that makes us curious about the past. At a certain age, we want answers to questions we never thought to ask our parents while they were alive. What were their lives like and the lives of their parents? Where did their ancestors come from?
Too late to get information from the living, a year ago I took a course on how to research family histories, signed up for two genealogy websites –MyHeritage.com and Ancestry.com — and started filling in some of the branches of my family tree and my husband’s.
The next step for us was to have our DNA tested by Ancestry.com. This involved paying a fee on-line, spitting into tubes we received in the mail, and returning our saliva samples to Ancestry. Our results arrived via email last week, about a month after we mailed the samples.
I highly recommend doing this for the surprise factor as well as the information. We were both astonished with some of our results. They are not as precise as we’d hoped. For example, they don’t tell my husband whether he has Dutch ancestors, but our on-line research did confirm that he has Dutch and Belgian roots. One surprise was that he also expected to be part Scandinavian, but his total DNA match to Scandinavia was 0%.
I recently learned from one grandmother’s death certificate, that her parents were born in Sweden. I only knew her and my grandfather as Minnesotans. I only knew my other grandparents as Missourians.
According to my list of ethnic groups, I am 20% Scandinavian, which makes sense now that I know where grandma’s mother was born. But there were bigger surprises. 24% Irish? 23% Eastern European? Me? And only 16% from Western Europe and 13% from Great Britain?
In the case of my husband, 28% of his DNA comes from ancestors from Great Britain, 8% from Ireland and 7% from Eastern Europe. 4% is European Jewish. He wondered about the name Zimmerman, recently found in his grandmother’s line. A full 46% of his DNA comes from Western Europe. Western Europe consists of eight countries. Not nearly specific enough. French don’t share the same culture or language as Germans and Dutch look like Scandinavians. So what is ethnicity?
Wikipedia says, “Membership of an ethnic group tends to be defined by a shared cultural heritage, ancestry, origin myth, history, homeland, language or dialect, symbolic systems such as religion, mythology and ritual, cuisine, dressing style, art, and physical appearance.
“Ethnic groups, derived from the same historical founder population, often continue to speak related languages and share a similar gene pool.”
The last few words clear up the mystery. Inhabitants of Western Europe likely “mingled” more and expanded the gene pool, whereas Scandinavia and Ireland were more isolated, though the Vikings traveled everywhere. “They traded and raided,” said the Professor of Scandinavian History on our Iceland trip. Apparently, Irish women were among their spoils, and ongoing DNA research suggests that as much as “50% of the women in Iceland were likely of Celtic stock.”
Hmm. So I come from Scandinavian stock and Irish stock. Could I be Icelandic? Maybe someday I will be able to discover great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents Olaf and Njála (Niala in Irish) and place them in my family tree.