Being a historian, I have always been curious about my ancestors. Unfortunately, however, archives and baptismal registers only go back a few hunderd years. One of my paternal uncles has traced the Nijssen family line back to the sixteenth century, but so far all of my paternal ancestors seem to have lived in a small area on the border between Noord-Brabant and Limburg. On my maternal side, too, all of my ancestors up to the third generation are from that specific region. So far, no exotic influences have been detected and no connections to great historical events can be made.
Since I am especially interested in ancient history, I have always been a bit disappointed that I would never know to which ancient peoples I was related. That is, until I discovered genetic DNA testing. Over the past few years I have read a lot about genetic genealogy and a few weeks ago I decided to order a DNA test of my own, at 23andme. At 23andme professional geneticists investigate your DNA and try to trace the origins of your genetic material back to specific regions. They can also identify both your paternal (Y-DNA) and maternal (mitochrondrial DNA) haplogroups, which allows you to trace the migration routes of your ancestors took back to East Africa. A few days ago the results came in…
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of DNA testing is the ancestry composition. By comparing the mutations on all 23 chromosomes to other DNA samples in the central database, geneticists try to predict which parts of your DNA sequence originated in which regions. This method is not waterproof, however, and has varying levels of certainty. The results currently displayed are in ‘Speculative Mode’, which means that they are 51% certain about assigning a certain specific origin. There is also a ‘Standard Mode’ (75% certainty) and a ‘Conservative Mode’ (90% certainty), but since I like to get specific results, I have chosen the Speculative Mode. Now, let us break down my ancestry composition. According to this test I am:
40,4% French & German
26,3% British & Irish
28,6% Broadly Northwest European
0,9% Broadly Southern European
1,3% Broadly European
40,4% French & German
French & German appears to be a generic term for continental Western Europe. It also includes the Low Countries. In other words, a high percentage within this group was to be expected. In my specific case these genes are likely derived from such peoples as the Belgae, the Eburones, the Batavians, provincial Romans and finally the Franks, who absorbed all previous populations.
26,3% British and Irish
This is a good example of what can happen if you choose to display your results in Speculative Mode. When displayed in Standard Mode, my British & Irish ancestry is only 6,7% and in Conservative Mode it is entirely absent. Although I do not rule out the possibility that I have some ancestors from the British Isles, I consider it unlikely that over a quarter of my ancestors migrated to the Netherlands from Britain in recent times. Instead, I think Saxon or Frisian genes may explain these results, since these peoples settled England during the Migration Period.
My gut reaction upon first seeing my Scandinavian ancestry was: “I’m descended from Vikings!” Of course this is a possibility. The Vikings are known to have sailed down the Rhine and the Meuse occasionally, although this region was not one of their main interests. However, there is more to Scandinavia than Vikings. In the fourteenth to sixteenth century there was a lot of interaction between Dutch and Scandinavian merchants because of the Hanseatic and Baltic Sea trade. Moreover, with a percentage of 2,3% it is possible that all Scandinavian genes came from one person five generations back, which would place him or her somewhere in the nineteenth century.
28,5% Broadly Northwest European
When using the term ‘broadly’, the 23andme geneticists admit that they cannot narrow down certain mutations any further. Broadly Northwest European means that these mutations are common throughout Northwest Europe.
0,9% Broadly Southern European
As with my Scandinavian ancestry, I really wanted to see provincial Roman ancestry in these Broadly Southern European genes. However, since these genes only appear on two chromosomes it is more likely that they belong to one Spanish or Italian immigrant about six generations back (which also isn’t far back enough to have originated in the Eighty Years War).
Ashkenazi (European) Jews have been living in the Netherlands since the seventeenth century. Like the Sephardic (Iberian) Jews before them, they were drawn to the Netherlands because of its relatively tolerant climate. Many Ashkenazi Jews sought refuge in the Dutch Republic during the turbulent years of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and after the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, when many Jews from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were massacred by Cossacks and Ruthenian farmers.
Since the Ashkenazi Jews, unlike their Spehardic cousins, were not rich and did not have much to offer, they were less welcome. Eventually, Amsterdam banned Ashkenazi Jews from settling in the city and many of them settled in the smaller towns in the Northeast of the country, where they founded their own communities (Mediene). Most Ashkenazi Jews made a living as peddlers, traveling around the countryside trying to sell items to the local farmers. There were also Mediene in Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Heerlen and Sittard and Jewish peddlers used to visit my grandfather’s farm up to the 1960s. Perhaps one of these peddlers, some ten generations back (i.e. somewhere in the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century) had an affair with one of the farmer’s daughters, which would explain my 0,1% Jewish ancestry.
1,3% Broadly European
This means about the same as Broadly Northwest European, only more abstract.
It’s usually the small, foreign elements in your DNA that are the most interesting, as these are the hardest to explain. It gets even more interesting when one element comes all the way from the other end of Eurasia. According to this test, I am 0,1% Yakut. This result is shown even in the Conservative Mode, which means that there must be something to it. The Yakuts are a Turkic people who are first attested near Lake Baikal, at about the same time that Genghis Khan was gathering his hordes, and who later spread across Eastern Siberia.
Somehow one of these Yakuts must have ended up in Europe. The most obvious explanation seems to be that he or she came to Europe along with the Mongol invasions. After invading Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, Turco-Mongol tribal federations kept dominating the Russian steppes until the sixteenth century and may have intermarried with the local population. The problem with this view is that 0,1% admixture means that at least one of my ancestors within the last ten generations must have been predominantly ‘Yakut’ genetically. It is unlikely that this person lived longer than 400 years ago. Moreover, if the descendants of the Mongols indeed intermarried with the Eastern European natives, why is there no Eastern European element in my ancestry composition? The lack of Eastern European admixture seems to indicate that my Yakut ancestry comes from one person who migrated from Siberia to Western Europe about 300 years ago. Now how could this be?
My admittedly speculative proposition is that my Yakut ancestor was part of the Grand Embassy of Peter the Great. In 1697-1698 Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, travelled through Europe incognito, along with an entourage of about 250 people. He was looking for allies in his war against the Ottomans and he was also searching for advisors to help him build a navy. On his journey the tsar and his entourage also stayed in the Netherlands for a few months. One of his travelling companions may have been of Yakut descent, since Yakutsk had been subjugated by the Russians about 70 years earlier. Perhaps my Yakut ancestor met a local girl at the tavern and got her pregnant.
3% Neanderthal DNA
The geneticists of 23andme do have one additional surprise for people who take their test. Ever since it has been confirmed that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens interbred, they have been trying to identify Neanderthal DNA. It turns out that 3% of my DNA can be traced back to Neanderthals, which is pretty high. I’m in the 88th percentile, which means that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 88% of the other test takers.
My maternal haplogroup: H6a1
Besides reconstructing your ancestry composition, it is also possible to trace back two individual lines: your maternal line and your paternal line. The maternal line can be determined by analysing the mitochrondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to child. My mitochondrial haplogroup (and that of my mother and her siblings, my maternal grandmother and her siblings, etc.) is H6a1. Unfortunately, I soon found out that this is a pretty rare haplogroup about which not much is known. H6a1 is a subgroup of haplogroup H, which is by far the most common mitochondrial haplogroup in Europe. Haplogroup H6, however, and certainly its subgroup haplogroup H6a1, are very rare in Europe. H6 originated in the Middle East and stayed there up until Neolithic times. It later spread north to the Russian steppes and from there it spread across Europe, about 3000 years ago. Perhaps the Cimmerians or the Scythians brought it with them.
My paternal haplogroup: R1a1a
A lot more can be said about my paternal line, which can be determined by analysing my Y-DNA. This part of our DNA is passed down from father to son. Women do not have it. According to this test my paternal line belongs to haplogroup R1a1a. This haplogroup is shared by all male Nijssens within my family. It is an interesting haplogroup, since it is, again, rare in the Netherlands, where it occurs among only 3,7% of the population. The highest frequencies can be found in Northern India (up to 72% among West Bengal Brahmins), Pakistan (up to 69% in Mohanna), Tajikistan (up to 68 % in Ishkashimi), Kyrgyzstan (63%), Hungary (60%), Nuristani’s (60%), Belarus (up to 59% in Brest), Russia (up to 58% in the Tver region), Poland (57%) and Ukraine (54%). In short, this haplogroup seems to cluster in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia. Significant minorities are also found in Germany, Scandinavia and Iran. Now how could this haplogroup have spread over such a huge region?
It is thought that R1a1a originated somewhere on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, where the haplogroup show much diversity. The Pontic-Caspian steppes are widely considered to be the proto-Indo-European homeland and the distribution of R1a1a coincides pretty neatly with the distribution of Indo-European languages, especially those belonging to the Satem-group (Slavic, Baltic, Iranian, Indo-Aryan). It is therefore highly likely that the spread of R1a1a and the spread of Indo-European languages are interrelated. For decades archaeologists have tried to associate archaeological cultures and complexes with the spread of the Indo-European languages. Based on this linguistic and archaeological evidence most of them have reached a consensus that proto-Indo-European originated on the Pontic-Caspian steppe with the Kurgan culture and genetic evidence now seems to support this hypothesis. Let us therefore finish with a reconstruction of the migration route of my paternal ancestors.
The first person to carry haplogroup R1a1a probably lived around 12.000 BC in the relatively ice free region north of the Black Sea. He probably made a living hunting mammoths. After the end of the last Ice Age his descendants spread across the Pontic-Caspian steppes and came to dominate the region. Somewhere around 4500 BC a tribe of R1a1a people spoke a dialect that was to become the ancestor of all Indo-European languages.
According to the Kurgan hypothesis the first Indo-European speakers lived in farming communities on the banks of the Don and Volga rivers. Besides practising agriculture, they also used the surrounding steppes to herd their cattle. These farming communities did well and before long a food surplus arose. The population grew and society became more stratified. Warlike chiefs, using the new techniques of bronze working and domestication of the horse, put themselves on top of the pyramid. This warrior elite has left behind impressive burial mounds, named kurgans, where they were buried along with their bronze weaponry, horses and luxuries. This new Indo-European society turned out to be a huge succes and around 3500 BC it had spread all across the Pontic-Caspian steppe, where the so-called Yamna culture arose (3500 – 2000 BC).
The Yamna culture had several offshoots. One of these – the one that brought my ancestors to Western Europe – is known as the Corded Ware horizon (Touwbekercultuur), which existed roughly between 2800 to 2400 BC. The Corded Ware horizon stretched from the Moscow region all the way along the coasts of the Baltic Sea and as far west as Germany and the Netherlands. The expansion of the Corded Ware culture is a reflection of the migration of Yamna people into regions where previously the Funnelbeaker culture (Trechterbekercultuur) had been dominant. The militarily superior Indo-European speakers imposed themselves as a warrior elite on the local population and their languages spread along with them. Throughout the Corded Ware horizon the simple egalitarian farming communities that had existed before were replaced by warlike chiefdoms. Burial mounds spread across the region and people started to bury their dead in individual graves, along with burial gifts. The proto-Slavic, proto-Baltic and proto-Germanic languages are likely all derived from the dialects of the Corded Ware people. If my paternal line indeed came to Western Europe with the Corded Ware horizon, my ancestors may have lived in the region for about 4500 years.
It is interesting to see how the results of this DNA test have changed the way I see myself. It has made me more aware of the fact that I am the result of millions of people throughout history reproducing. Who knows which historical events played a role in bringing my ancestors together? If only one of these events had been different, I wouldn’t have existed today. I am the product of history.
When studying my results I found myself especially drawn to the small, exotic elements in my DNA. I often found myself wondering what my Jewish and Yakut ancestors were like, but didn’t care much about my French & German ancestors. It is also funny to see how both my paternal and maternal lines are quite exotic and rare in the Netherlands, even though my ancestry composition says that I’m 97,6% Northwest European.
Finally, I found the idea I am most likely directly descended from the proto-Indo-Europeans very interesting. My ancestors already spoke a language that was ancestral to Dutch. Moreover, it was a thrill to realize that my paternal haplogroup is shared by many Iranian and Indo-Aryan peoples, whom I have been studying so intensively over the last few years. Apparently I have just been researching my distant family history.