If like me, you view ancestry research as a spiritual quest, you may be wondering if it is worthwhile to have your DNA tested. I found out about The Seven Daughters of Eve, the female ancestors of most Europeans, some years ago. Through my mtDNA (passed from mothers to children) and my father’s YDNA (passed from fathers to sons) tests, I discovered my connection to a woman who lived in Old Europe about 18,000 years ago and to a man who was among the Indo-European invaders thousands of years later.
I became aware of atDNA (autosomal) tests for ethnicity while watching the PBS American ancestry programs created by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates. In considering ethnicity, it is important to remember that 99.9% of human DNA is shared. AtDNA testing focuses on the .1% that is not. This type of DNA testing can locate African DNA geographically, and it also can reveal Native American and Jewish ancestry. When the test recently became less expensive, I decided to try it. I was particularly interested to see if my 3x great-grandmother Gertrud Zimmerman might have been Jewish.
Although I hoped for surprises, there were none: my DNA is 100% European. According to the Ancestry analysis, my DNA is 38% Europe West, 25% Scandinavia, 19% Great Britain (Scotland and England), 6% Ireland, 6% Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), 5% Finnish/Northwest Russia, and <1% Italy/Greece.
I sent my results on to Family Tree DNA as I had been told that it had a larger ethnicity data base than Ancestry. Family Tree results were: 56% British Isles (including Ireland), 18% Western and Central Europe, 14% Eastern Europe, 10% Scandinavia, 3% Finland.
According to my family research I should be 37.5% German, German-Swiss, and German-French, 25% Swedish, 18.75% English and Scottish, and 18.75% Irish. Neither analysis was quite right. However, some of my German ancestors came from an area near the border with Poland: this could explain my Eastern European genetic material. “Scandinavian” genes are found in high concentrations in the British Isles due to the Viking invasions and in Western and Central Europe due to the Norman invasions: some of my Swedish genes could have been coded as British or West Central Europe. There are high percentages of Iberian genes found in the British Isles: this may be the result of migrations that occurred millennia ago. Due to the mixing of gene pools in Europe, ethnicity analyses from DNA can only be suggestive.
Furthermore, each child inherits 50% of its DNA from each parent. My mother was ½ Swedish, ¼ German, and ¼ English. Her children could inherit exactly ½ of each of these percentages, but it is statistically possible that one of them would inherit only Swedish and another only German and English DNA from her. Thus it is wrong to assume that my DNA must be 25% Swedish. Similarly though my father was 3/8 Irish, I did not necessarily inherit ½ of his Irish DNA. This also explains why children of the same parents often do not look alike: siblings may share anywhere from all (identical twins) to none (though this is unlikely) of the same autosomal DNA. The fact that I have no Jewish DNA does not rule out the possibility that my 3x great-grandmother was Jewish; my DNA analysis simply shows is that if I had Jewish ancestors, I did not inherit their DNA, though my siblings might have.
Ancestry and Family Tree DNA provide cousin matches based on common DNA sequences. If matched cousins also have Ancestry family trees, Ancestry searches for common ancestors in their trees. So far I have 5 Ancestry family tree matches. New ones will turn up as more people have their DNA analyzed.
I thought I had come to a dead end in regard to my Swedish ancestors after the research I completed recently. I had located my great-grandfather’s ancestral home in Vena, Sweden through his letter to my grandfather; I thought I had located my great-grandmother’s birthplace as Hogdahl through her mother’s death certificate.
However, the first DNA match cousin to contact me told me that our common ancestors came from a place called Overhogdal. It is well-known to researchers that birthdates are notoriously wrong in written records. Amazingly, Ruth had located the same name, birth day, and year based on birth records in Overhogdal that I had learned from from my 2x great-grandmother’s death certificate. Ruth and I are descended from a brother and a sister who both settled in Kansas City.
A few days later I received a message from Janet, who is a descendant of a sister of my 2x great-grandmother; she put me in touch with a more distant cousin named Thomas who has been researching Overhogdal for twenty-five years. Through him I have learned the names of ancestors of my 2x great-grandparents who lived in Overhogdal, Ytterhogdal, and the surrounding villages for hundreds of years. Thomas also told me that all of the Swedish people from the Overhogdal area have Finnish DNA and he located a Finnish woman whose family had settled in the Overhogdal area among my known ancestors: one or both of these facts may account for my Finnish DNA. Out of the goodness of his heart, Thomas also sent me information on my other Swedish family from Vena. This information alone was well worth the money I paid to have my autosomal DNA analyzed. I expect other revelations to follow.
If you have read this far, you may be asking yourself why I consider ancestor research a spiritual quest. My spirituality is rooted in my connection to the earth. In traditional communities the ancestral stories create connections to specific places in the landscape. “The ancestors” and “nature” thus are not separated, as they might be for those of us whose ancestors migrated from the places that held and sparked ancestor memories. I can only imagine the connections through the generations to the land that my 2x great-grandgrandparents left behind in Overhogdal and Ytterhogdal when they emigrated.*
Had she still been living there, my 2x great-grandmother would have told her children and children’s children stories located in places in nature that would have been familiar to them. Though I do not have a direct connection to these stories, I can begin to imagine them as I download pictures of the places where my 2x great-grandparents lived before they left home with their 5 daughters to begin the journey to America.
*Olof Olofsson and Inrid Mattsdottor emigrated to the United States with 5 daughters in 1869, following 2 years of crop failures in Sweden. Olof Olfsson went back to Sweden in 1875 leaving his family in the United States, returned to the United States in 1880, and then went back alone to Sweden in 1881, where he died in 1892. I do not know the reasons that led him to abandon his family, but longing for this beautiful homeland must of been among them.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space a vailable on the spring and fall 2015 tours. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.