The forgotten complexity & diversity of European genetic admixtures

In genealogy it’s always a good practice to re-visit the various records collected and compiled. The same holds true for re-visiting articles and studies. Chances are, you’ll stumble across something new. Or you gain a new perspective. I’ve been re-reading DNA related articles and studies that I’ve saved over the years.

Armed with a larger family tree that stretches back eons on two of its branches, I’ve been able to see the facts presented in these studies and articles in a fresh light.

Empire expansion and empire building were bloody, disruptive and traumatic forces. There’s no two ways about it. However, it seems that once the proverbial dust settled, the peoples that we would class as ancient Europeans , at least, seemed to get on with the business of living, trading and exchanging DNA with the new cultures they came into contact with. The cultural divisions erected only a few centuries ago just don’t seem to have been present further back in history. There were no silos of classification, not as we would recognize them today. Divisions were based pretty much on the perception of a people being ‘barbarians’ or ‘civilized’. Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Pausinas, Herodotus and their contemporaries have much to say on the matter.

I’ve wondered how Han and Gelao Chinese as well as various Central Asian tribes came to make significant contributions to my autosomal, YDNA and mtDNA. The genealogy of two families in my tree partially answered it. The Scythians and the Huns. My Matthews and Roane ancestors were descendants of both of these cultures. I know this because I have a few of these ancestors’ names.

a map showing the Tribes and kingdoms of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th Century.

Tribes and kingdoms of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th Century. click for larger image

The Scythian culture and kingdom existed roughly between 300BCE to 600CE. The map below shows the extent of their territory. I note that around a dozen or so of my oldest known direct ancestors on the Matthews and the Roane lines were born in present day Croatia, Ukraine and Bulgaria – the western fringe of the Scythian territory.

Map of Scythian Empire in the 4th Century

Map of Scythian Empire in the 4th Century

Looking at the maps above, I can understand why there are Han, Gelao, Khazak, Dagan, Tuvan, Alatai, etc results present in my DNA.

How?

The Scythians and the Huns both came to occupy this territory. I have found a handful of union between my Scythian ancestors and Huns. The descendants of these Scythian-Hun unions married the various Roman, Scandinavian and Franco-Germanic people. When my 54th great grandfather Gratian (Gratianus Funarius) “The Elder” , a Scythian, married Constantia Constantine, a Lombard – that union produced children with an admixture encompassing Mediterranean, Balkan, near Eastern and Asiatic DNA. Two generations down the line, their descendants had married into the various Frano-Germanic tribes…and the Vandals, a North African people, and Scandinavians. And their descendants intermarried.

It is from this rich and ancient line that every single European royal family is descended. And they aren’t alone. This exchange of DNA happened throughout Europe. I look at it like this: a Vandal princess wasn’t sent to marry an Ostrogtoth king on her own. She went with a retinue of courtiers, servants and soldiers. Marriages like this were social as well as political. Trade routes would be established which meant Ostrogoth and Vandal merchants would go back and forth supplying all manner of goods and servants. Mutual protection treaties were agreed, which meant Vandal and Ostrogoth soldiers would go back and forth as needed if one or the other of the two kingdoms were engaged in war. In other words, swathes of people moved from one place to another.

Picture this, if you will. You’re going about your lord and/or lady’s business. Scrubbing kitchen floors, preparing food for some feat that you’ll never see, polishing the silver, sweeping the floors – and of the myriad of tasks servants had to do to keep their rulers and their court happy, sated and comfortable. You like the look of that foreign stranger brought into your midst by some royal marriage or another. You can’t speak the same language, not yet at any rate. However, through various charades-worthy gesticulations, you manage to convey the essentials: “I like the look of you. Do you fancy meeting up after that lot upstairs has passed out? We can knick some wine, maybe some bread and cheese if we’re lucky…and have a laugh?” Transfer the setting to the local marketplace, a shop, the local temple – pretty much anywhere people came into contact with one other in ancient times. You get the idea.

Boiled down, significant numbers of people moved back and forth, marrying and exchanging admixtures along the way. These admixtures are part and parcel of the overall modern European genetic makeup – and the makeup of European-descended people scattered around the globe.

This brings me quite nicely to four articles that are definitely worth a read. They specifically cover the British Isles and Ireland. They touch on various aspects of this post quite nicely. I cite them specifically due to the remoteness of these islands in the Roman era and the two to three centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe. Despite their remoteness, these islands have a simply staggering genetic admixture legacy.

  1. 10 Surprising Ancestral Origins Revealed by DNA Testing
    http://www.abroadintheyard.com/surprising-ancestral-origins-revealed-by-dna-testingOr:  never judge a book by its cover.
  2. The Guardian’s Scottish people’s DNA study could ‘rewrite nation’s history’ http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/aug/15/scotland-dna-study-projectDespite a long-held belief that its ethnic make-up was largely Scots, Celtic, Viking and Irish…Scotland was in fact “one of the most diverse nations on earth”. There’s a pretty interesting reason why.
  3. Prospect Magazine’s Myths of British ancestry
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/mythsofbritishancestrySo it turns out that the ancient ancestors of the (non-Cornish) British and the Irish looks like it was the Basques, not Celts. And that the Celts probably weren’t wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons. And that neither the Celts nor the Anglo-Saxons had much impact on the genetic stock of these islands.
  4. Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us About the Ancestry of People in Ireland. http://hubpages.com/hub/Irish-Blood-Genetic-IdentityIreland’s pre-historic peopling, it turns out, is far more interesting and complicated than previously thought.
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