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.


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  never judge a book by its cover.
  2. The Guardian’s Scottish people’s DNA study could ‘rewrite nation’s history’ 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 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.’s pre-historic peopling, it turns out, is far more interesting and complicated than previously thought.

New YouTube Playlist: DNA Adventures – the story of us

I’ve been carefully curating videos on YouTube that covers the story of humankind’s most epic journey – how we came to populate the plant. I’ve created a new YouTube playlist that covers this journey…as well as videos covering basic human genetics and human evolution.

I’ve embedded the playlist below. You can surf through the videos by selecting the Playlist icon in the upper left side of the video player. The icon disappears as soon as each video begins to play. As soon as your mouse hovers over the video, the icon will re-appear.

Just in case the video player below doesn’t work on your device, here’s the YouTube playlist link:

Nicholas Wade’s CNN GPS interview: Old phrenology in new clothes?

CNN GPS with Faeed ZakariaShowAnyone who knows me will tell you I am a level-headed person – what my Dad’s generation would call ‘one cool customer’. My best mates describe me as something of a Spock from Star Trek. I just don’t tend to get worked up or rattled about stuff. People and/or situations can push my buttons all they want…I rarely react. It’s not that I don’t care about things. I just keep the old emotions in check. It really takes a heck of a lot for me to lose my cool. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Nicholas Wade on the GPS Show ( ) did it. It took me from zero to Mach 5 in just under a few minutes.

Nicholas WadeSo what was the topic that set me off on a rollercoaster of disbelief and annoyance? What left me dumbfounded and incredulous? Nicholas Wade discussing his book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. If his interview talking points provide any indication of his book’s content, it’s trying to be politically correct observances about genetics and racial differences without being, well, racist. It’s the kind of ‘research’ that academics like to pass off as ‘informed’.  I have a feeling that if we were to peek under this particular book’s research petticoats, a very different picture would begin to emerge. I say that as a fully paid up member of higher education academia.

For me, Wade’s assertions came across as Old Phrenology dressed up in new clothes. That’s being kind. Because the words Hitler and Aryan Race quickly flitted through my mind. History has amply proved that bad things happen when bad science or questionable research in the arena of ‘races’ and cultural differences is touted/presented as fact.

To sum things up quickly, Wade contends that not only is the concept of ‘Race’ real –but that there exists genetic proof that different races have evolved along different paths. In short, different races have evolved differently.

To be completely transparent, I don’t believe in race. If you’re at all interested in my mere thoughts one the subject, here’s the link to my first post on the subject of how the concept of ‘Race’ is a fabrication . To cut a long story short, my own DNA journey put me on a path which led to the conclusions addressed in my four post series on the subject.

Zakaria could have torpedoed Wade out of the water with a few well-crafted and researched questions. He didn’t. So what could he have asked?

Well, for starters, I want to know about the data which purportedly supports Wade’s ‘academic’ and ‘scientific’ work. What was the size of the population he used for his study? If it was anything less than millions of DNA test results from all around the world, then I can’t take his findings seriously. What cultures were part of the study? And what has been their history over the past 1,000 – 3,000 years? That’s coming from a fellow university academic. Anything less couldn’t begin to possible support the broad sweeping statements Wade made on the show (here’s a link to the transcription of the interview: )

Mr Wade, I hate to burst your bubble but the majority of cultures on the planet have not lived in some sort of glorious isolation, genetic or otherwise. Human beings from different cultures have intermingled and produced culturally mixed offspring since the dawn of our species. We’ve exchanged admixtures – as well as concepts, technologies and beliefs – for as long as we’ve existed.

Human beings have an epic history which abounds with examples of the large-scale movements of people. Tens of thousands of years (at least!) of population movements due to environmental changes, famine, war/occupation, empires, trade, exploration and slavery have ensured that human admixtures (you know, the one thing that you didn’t discuss) have flowed back and forth amongst the different cultures and peoples of the Earth.

Even cultures who live in geographically isolated places have, upon occasion, chosen partners from outside of their immediate culture to counter-act against the downfalls of too much inter-marrying. It’s a taboo that a multitude of cultures around the world have. It’s a taboo that stretches back for millennia. The Romans understood this basic concept and expressed it quite plainly in their horror of the Egyptian royal practice of siblings marrying one another. The ancient Greek, Hebrews, Phoenicians, etc also understood the downfalls of a genetically limited population. My point? While ancient civilizations wouldn’t understand the concept of genetic diversity – they understood that ‘new blood’, ‘different blood’ was needed and benefited their respective cultures. Any anthropologist could tell you that.

And yes, there were political imperatives as well, namely ‘assimilation’ of different cultures into their own, forging political alliances through the intermarriage of populations or an attempt at genetic annihilation (‘breeding another culture out of existence). My point? This process was global and has been going on for as long as we’ve been human and have built civilizations and cultures. My study of DNA and genetics proves this time and time again. Again, I am walking, talking proof of it.

That’s fact. I’m living proof. And I am so very, very, very far from being unique.

The last bit that ramped up my disbelief was the conversation about the occurrence of lactose intolerance in East Asian populations. Really? Seriously? Wow. If you’re saying that East Asians have evolved differently from other ‘races’ on the basis that something like lactose intolerance is proof… then what does that say about the level of lactose intolerance among European populations? Again, Zakaria could have blown Wade clean out the water with this question.

Before anyone chastises me for the lactose intolerance example, I get it. It’s TV – and populist TV at that. Genetics is a complicated science and this had to be dumbed down so that Joe and Jane Blogs could understand the main thrust. It was, however, a stunningly bad example to use. It was a gross over-simplification. And, as I stated above, just plain wrong.

As for the Eskimo adaptation example, well, I hate to point this out but we are a highly adaptable species. Our ability as a species to easily adapt to different environments has enabled us to conquer every environment. Our ability to change to any set of circumstances is fluid. Just because a culture adapts to a set of circumstances, say high altitude, that doesn’t mean that adaptation is permanent. That population may retain the ability to easily live at a high altitude while they remain in a high altitude environment…but they and their descendants can easily live in other environments. They wouldn’t die if they came to live in a lowland area. It’s not like they would die if they moved elsewhere. It’s not like they would be like the Natterjack toad which has truly evolved to live in only one environment and is limited to breeding within its own sub-species.

I am kind of tempted to buy Wade’s book just for the humor value. I’m also tempted to read it to understand and assess the ‘science’ and the research behind his the theory. This wasn’t touched on at all during the course of the interview, which, in my opinion, should have been the main thrust of the interview. Pretty much everything Wade said he’s said already. There was nothing new to learn in this interview, not really. Which, in my view, made for lackluster and uninspired journalism at best. At worst, it was the loss of an excellent opportunity to unveil Wade’s real motivations and/or agenda in producing this book at all.

Apologies for the plug…but TV seriously needs my DNA Adventures TV series. It’s topics and ignorance like the above that I want to take head on with facts, nothing but the facts, and plenty of them 😉

The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction

The more regular visitors to this blog will no doubt realize I’ve gone a bit quiet over the past week or so. I’ve been grappling with a concept that I’ve been struggling to get a handle on…much less commit to print.

My genealogy adventures has taken twists and turns I could have never foreseen. How grateful I’ve been for the ride, let alone the journey! This is one of those times. I’ve had a very recent epiphany regarding the concepts of Race and Culture. I’m not capitalizing these words simply for emphasis – but to highlight their conceptual nature. That was part of my ultimate realization – these two things are just that…concepts. Man made concepts at that. And the intersection between these two concepts will form the basis of the next couple of posts.

I appreciate that what comes as pure and simple logic to me will more than likely prove controversial to others. I’m pretty nonplussed when it comes to push-back. Like any academic, I’ll welcome the conversation and debate. What I’ll be writing about isn’t meant to be controversial. I’m merely sharing an insight that I’ve had. Others will either think about it and have their own realizations – or they won’t.

So how did this light-bulb moment I’m grappling with come about? Two simply brilliant sources of information that discuss genetic admixtures. Yep, more DNA stuff 🙂 Genetic admixtures happen when people from two different cultures produce children. For instance, say a Han man from China has children with a Yoruba woman from Africa. This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds! Their children’s DNA will have a mixture of Han Chinese and Yoruba African DNA – an admixture. That admixture gets passed down their descendants’ lines as per the usual rules of DNA inheritance. In other words, it gets passed down through subsequent generations. This is a simplification, but one that serves to explain a complicated fact in a very straightforward way. One thing to realize – every human being on the planet has all manner of admixtures in his or her DNA.


The two information sources which jostled me along this particular road of personal discovery are below. They’re worth investigating. On the one hand, they are both simply fascinating. I keep returning to them. Secondly, understanding them, and understanding their implications, will help you understand my epiphany about Race and Culture.

And if this is all sounding somewhat familiar? Well, I tentatively broached this subject in my post DNA: Going beyond a single racial or cultural identity. In my next post, I’ll be going much deeper. I’ve gained a far deeper realization over the past few days than the basic outline broached in that initial post.

If this subject interests you, these are the two sources that are worth checking out:

Wade, Nicholas. 2014. Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014.; and

Human Admixture events
A genetic atlas of human admixture history,
An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Happy investigating!