The Great British Heritage Mystery by
25
(46 Stories)

Prompted By Genealogy

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Ever since I was a child, I’d heard rumblings about my paternal grandmother’s appearance and how her physicians judged her a perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon woman. Being Russian Jewish seemed to belie the idea, but maybe in the distant past the heritage had crept in. In the family, I was one of the few who inherited her fair skin and dark blond hair. So, a few years ago, I decided to see what, if anything, DNA had to say about the matter. By that time, all the older folks on my father’s side had passed away, but I was able to have my and my mother’s DNA tested via Ancestry.

Turns out I was "only" 94% eastern European Jewish ...

The results were exciting and fun. Turns out I was “only” 94% eastern European Jewish (which is a low percentage for Ashkenazi Jews), and had a 2.5% trace of “Great Britain.” My mother, on the other hand, did not have this heritage, and had the more common Italian and Greek traces (who knew that was in fact common?). However, she had an extremely rare SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) that exists only in people of Swedish and Polynesian heritage (huh?). Even Ancestry admitted they were stumped by that. So, I concluded that the British heritage came from my father’s side, probably through my grandmother, and I might have had a third great-grandparent with western and/or northern European blood.

A couple of years after this, I received an email telling me that Ancestry had recalculated our results. Apparently this is done as more people are added to the database and the data becomes more refined. Now my results state I’m closer to 99% eastern European Jewish, and all the regional information about migration patterns became a giant blob that encompassed the eastern European Pale of Settlement. Not very informative.

This is a cautionary tale about believing data taken from relatively small numbers of people. Who knows, maybe in a few years, the results will again be calculated–and be different. One of these years, I might try 23 and Me, and because what’s sequenced is different, the results might be different as well. Until then I’ll consider the British mystery unsolved. And, given my background as a life science writer, I would leave any serious medical genetic questions to experienced professionals rather than these services.

While I did have some reservations about having my DNA online, the actual matches from my DNA, and info about people from my family tree, gave me a lot of value. I was contacted by a young woman who really is my second cousin, and we hadn’t known about each other (my grandfather was the second of eight children, and her grandfather was his youngest brother). Because of intermarriage throughout multiple generations, my mother has dozens and dozens of third and fourth cousins, even “double” cousins related to her on both her mother’s and father’s side. I found my father’s and grandfather’s military records and learned that my grandfather took a trip to Cuba in the 1930s (why nobody knows).

All this said, I have learned more about my background from a narrative that my great aunt on my father’s side wrote down, and recently, after moving my mother to a senior residence, we found some writings about her mother’s side of the family. So, whether I’m a bit British or not, I’ll look forward to exploring real information about the real people who came before me.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, as we discussed last week, the actual oral and written histories passed down (if we are lucky enough to have them) tell us much more than DNA matches to obscure, distant cousins. I often wish I had known enough to ask older relatives more about their backgrounds. That said, cool to have some British blood mixed in there. My husband, who like you is fair and blue eyed, was told he had an ancestor from Denmark. Didn’t show up in his DNA profile, but someone from several generations past claimed to come from there. Strange.

    • Marian says:

      Laurie, that’s interesting about your husband and Denmark, sure could be given his fair skin and blue eyes. The SNP from Sweden that my mother has still continues to puzzle, and one of her doctors swore that she looked like his Danish mother. There could be something to this, but how to verify would be some trick!

    • Amen to that. Unfortunately I have virtually few such stories; my information is almost all research based. Without the family narrative it’s pretty dry.

      I have been working on a family history project and in that regard took an online course offered by Russell Shorto (Island at the Center of the World, Revolution Song et al). Really worthwhile: check https://family-history.teachable.com/. Russell uses his own current project to illustrate the point and offers very helpful information about how to get at story.

      • Marian says:

        Good recommendation, Tom. I am trying to get some oral history out of my mom (she’s about the last of her generation around), and it would be interesting to learn Shorto’s process. For Jews, there is a resource called JewishGen.org, which has specialized information and enables searching by alternate names and phonetic spellings. Alas, a lot of the records are those of burials and deaths from the Holocaust.

  2. Suzy says:

    Marian, this is fascinating! Odd how you went from 94% to 99% eastern European Jewish when the data base grew. I would expect that mine would be 100%, unless there was a Cossack rape somewhere back in time, which I would rather not know about. I agree with you that narratives are better than DNA tests, although I suppose that as the older generation dies off, there will be no one to get the narratives from any more. In my family, I don’t think there is anyone left alive from the generation before mine.

    • Marian says:

      Yeah, it’s a bit confusing, Suzy. Most European Jews get about a 98% result. My guess is that as more people were added to the database, they got a more inclusive picture of the DNA and didn’t classify as many alleles as “outliers” from other regions. Because the European concentration happened relatively late, the origin data just comes out in a big blob, and it’s really difficult to know 500 years back where one’s ancestors were. It’s different for people of African descent because there is a lot more genetic diversity, so often they can tell the exact areas of their lineage.

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