Ancestor Connection and DNA Testing by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ photo michael bakasIf 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.

Overhogdal house
A house in Overhodgal, the village where Ingrid Mattsdottor was born
church ytterhogdal
The church in Ytterhogdal where Olof Olofsson and the children he had with Ingrid Mattsdottor were baptized
Ytterhogdal summer night
Olof Olofsson and Ingrid Mattsdottor must have longed to see the landscape of Ytterhogdal again

*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.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

13 thoughts on “Ancestor Connection and DNA Testing by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Sleuthing the trail of your ancestry sounds fascinating, thanks, Carol, and the photos so beautiful.

    But I am just wondering about the deeper meaning of seeking to reach backward into our ancient roots? And that brings to mind my own research on the Hymn to Demeter, and the Great Mother of the ancient world. There is some sort of instinct in me to search back for that connection. I even wonder if there is anything in our DNA that prompts us to search for the Great Mother in the world and in our deepest self?


  2. Very interesting. I’m curious to know about my distant ancestors, but not curious enough to do any actual research. I have a friend who is doing exhaustive genealogical research all the time. It exhausts me just listening to her.

    I did take the DNA test offered by 23 and Me and learned that I am nearly 100% European. Considering only my grandparents, I know that I am 7/8 German and 1/8 Dutch. What this may mean spiritually, I have no idea. I’m not particularly attracted to the Germanic and Norse pantheons.

    You’ve given us something to think about today. Thanks!


  3. Thanks for sharing this Carol. I took an Eldercollege course on genealogy many years ago and appreciate the work that goes into finding connections. I never got past my great grandfather – of whom I know nothing! I was pleased to find that some of my ancestors went to the USA from Germany because they refused to fight in the local wars.

    What most stirs me tho, is seeing a photo of “Lucy”, and feeling such a strong connection to her. I have no idea why, but there it is, running around in my heart.


  4. It’s interesting, for me it ended up being not so much about ethnicities but about my family’s role in structural white privilege despite being poor folk all the way back (my mother’s generation are the ones who fully came out of rural poverty, as I understand the story). So it was a political-ethical quest, not explicitly spiritual (although the two are combined for me). Between a cousin’s diligent research and my own DNA testing, I found out that on my mother’s side I am registered and trademarked white folk. My ancestors fought on the wrong side of the Civil War and the right side (if you are American) or the wrong side (if you are Canadian) of the Revolutionary War. On my father’s side, my Jewish paternal grandparents came through Ellis Island from a city in Poland, but that’s as far back as that goes as far as I am aware. My father had the civil rights sensibility of many Jews of his day. Because he was in the entertainment industry from childhood on, black experience of racism was right in his face. I also imagine that being a Jew back in those days gave him an empathetic taste of racial oppression.


  5. What a beautiful Journey to take yourself on! The webs of our bloodlines can offer us such riches. To learn about and honor those who have come before us…so fascinating and fun! Cheers to your journey and thank you for sharing your story! You may have inspired me to look into my DNA testing!


  6. When I did anti-racism work with “white” folks in the 1990s, one of the things that was fascinating was learning how diverse each of us seemingly white people were. In the South, I discovered, not only the “melting pot” of white ethnicities, but a smattering of African heritage as well. And in the Midwest and East, women who looked 100% white often were part Native American. Just that information at the beginning of a workshop, I believe, allowed us to broaden our understanding of diversity, because even we “white” women were diverse.


  7. Thank you for sharing your journey, and I definitely connected to your summation in that, “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 ….” While I was reading David Abram’s books, this landscape:people connection is emphasized and I found it fascinating.

    Another perspective that resonated with me was that of Sara Maitland in her book “From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of our Fairy Tales” and specifically when she commented that: “In Britain we often like to see ourselves as Sea People … We tend to obscure the fact that, essentially, most of us are predominantly Germanic … We share deep roots and cultural similarities with the people of northern Europe … I tend to use the word ‘Teutonic’ [rather than Germanic], a wider, less nationalised term … At our deep Teutonic roots we are forest people, and our stories and social networks are forest born.”

    Since then, I have felt and viewed my birth-land differently (the Ozarks, a place of dense forest in which I always felt totally at home and at peace) where both sides of my family were/are several generations deep although a distinctly mixed brew of ethnicity including German, British, Scottish, Dutch, and Native American.

    I appreciate how your essays about your ancestral explorations have helped to open me into new ways of viewing this deep-seated sense in me of being “lost” or not-fitting-in as more than just a personal insecurity (based only upon personality) and is, perhaps, also linked to Americanized displacement from ancestral lands.


    1. How interesting and makes me wonder about my own ancestry which I think does not really fit some of my preferences, e.g. for places where I can see far. I have not been to Switzerland where a lot of my ancestors emigrated from but since mountains, I am guessing one can see far there in at least some places. I am really going to have to think about this a lot. Thanks for your post.


  8. I appreciate how your essays about your ancestral explorations have helped to open me into new ways of viewing this deep-seated sense in me of being “lost” or not-fitting-in as more than just a personal insecurity (based only upon personality) and is, perhaps, also linked to Americanized displacement from ancestral lands. Darla

    I think you are very right about that, Darla. And in addition in America so many of us have been taught to despise the places we came from and our ancestors because they were not good enough by someone else’s standard.

    And then too since WW2 so many of the places where we were raised have been bulldozed developed beyond recognition so that the places we remember in fact no longer exist.This is certainly true of many places in California where as Californian Cher sang “they took paradise and they made it a parking lot.”


  9. Thanks for this article, Carol. My genetic explorations have uncovered that I am descended from Eve’s “daughter” Helena and as all my grandparents are from Italy, I was surprised to learn I’m not so much Italian. I’m mostly Spanish (first reported as Jewish, and I’m looking into this as my grandparents’ town was a haven for Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition; ironically, previous to knowing this, I had converted to Judaism). I’m only 28% Italian, and 22% an area that includes Scandinavia, which I attribute to my Sicilian grandfather who was Norman. There must not have been a great deal of intermarriage among them because when walking through the town, I can pick out people who look exactly like my grandfather, mother, brother, and nieces, and I’m certain they’re relatives. A cousin from the other side of the family asked me why my grandmother had married the Norman: “They’re nice people, but we don’t marry them.” The remainder of my DNA is also intriguing: Turkish, Arabic, European Jewish, and Ukraine. They sure got around!


  10. After my grandson had his DNA done through National Geographic Genotype project, I decided to get mine done via I already had a lot of family tree information, including a bunch of Zimmermans from Switzerland dating back to the 1600s. Given the trees, I expected to have more Irish and Great Britain but do not. However, since two of my great grandfathers came from Switzerland, I would automatically have 25 per cent Swiss. My Western Europe was 77 per cent and once I started counting, I realized that the majority of ancestors way back that I could trace so far were from either Switzerland or adjoining areas, e.g. Alsace. Before having this done, I really wanted to go to goddess sites in Ireland. Now that I found almost as much DNA from Caucasus–Iran, Iraq, Georgia, etc., I now want to go to Crete. In some ways I should not have been too surprised about this because I already knew I was Haploid J (Jasmine)–the last people to leave the Middle East and move to Europe–and most people currently living in the Middle East are Haploid J. One thing I have learned from DNA and also from reading The Seven Daughters of Eve is that you many not be what you think you are because a child may not be the child of the person stated in the family tree. Carol, I hope to meet you one day. Currently, I am researching the ancient goddess religions for a book of poetry which I have already started. I would like to trace my family tree back farther than the 1600s and wondering how you were able to do that?? Juliana


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