Tuesday, August 21, 2012

So...a Viking, an Arab, and a Jew Walk into My Genepool...

DNA tests have been a hot topic in the genealogy community for several years.  As costs have decreased, they've become a far more accessible tool for complementing one's family history research,...just as long as you're not averse to the mere idea of spitting in a test tube or swabbing the inside of your cheek.

There are numerous services available: 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and most recently AncestryDNA, just to name those that I've tried.  This post is not intended to be a review of these services, but I may dive into those waters in future posts.  In the meantime, simply keep in mind that none of these services are perfect.  They each have a unique value proposition, and they are all still evolving.   For this post, let's just see what I learned about my own genetic ethnicity and the experience in general.

Molfetta, my parents' hometown, is located in the region of Puglia (or Apuglia in English).  Puglia, is the region of southeastern Italy often simply described as the heel of the boot of Italy.  As with most of Southern Italy, Puglia's history is riddled with periods of colonization, invasion, and subjugation.  Keeping all this in mind, let's see the results of each service.

The bar graph below displays how 23andMe compares my DNA to those of regional populations throughout the globe.  A longer bar signifies a greater genetic similarity. 

The stacked bar graph below displays FamilyTreeDNA's interpretation of my ethnic mix.  They also allow for a pie chart representation.

A pie chart display is the current preference of AncestryDNA.

Each of these services leverages maps to illustrate definitions of genetic ethnicity, and it's important to note that their respective definitions vary greatly.   For example, FamilyTreeDNA includes Greece within its Southern European region while AncestryDNA includes Greece within its Eastern European grouping.  Despite these idiosyncrasies, I feel that these tests are all telling me a similar story: My DNA reflects the history of Puglia.  Oh, and by the way, here's some surprising news: I'm mostly European Jewish, at least according to AncestryDNA.

If we just look at my AncestryDNA results, one can theorize that my Scandinavian genes come from Norman invaders of the 11th century or the Lombards who settled in the region earlier after the fall of the Roman Empire. My Eastern European DNA may come from the Illyrians who originally settled Puglia millennia ago or the Greeks and Byzantines who came later. The Byzantine period may have contributed to my Persian/Turkish/Caucasus and Middle Eastern DNA, or perhaps my Middle Eastern genes arose from Saracen raiders or the brief existence of the Emirate of Bari.  Furthermore, since Molfetta was a common stop for pilgrims to the Holy Land before, during, and after The Crusades, it's quite possible that this activity had an impact on my ethnic mix.  Until these tests can provide more granular historical context, I can amuse myself with all kinds of speculation.  However, nothing beats my newly discovered European Jewish roots for potential fun with conjecture.

Frankly, before I received my AncestryDNA test results, I never thought to consider the history of the Jews in Puglia.  I have visited Molfetta and other parts of Puglia numerous times throughout my life.  Though I don't consider myself a practicing Roman Catholic, the religion is inherently woven into my ethnic identity because it is inseparable from most traditions and many aspects of daily life in Puglia.  Only now am I aware of the rich, complex, and often tragic history of Jews in the area dating back to the Roman Empire.  I may have never become aware of these facts had I not been compelled by the DNA test results.  For example, this article from the online version of Israel's oldest newspaper, Haaretz, refers to a saying often quoted by Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages: "For out of Bari goes forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Otranto."  The article goes on to describe the thriving Jewish community of Trani which is just a dozen or so miles from my parents' hometown of Molfetta.  Therefore, assuming that my roots in Puglia go back to this period, some of my ancestors quite possibly could have been Jews who either voluntarily chose to convert at some point or converted under duress during one of the various periods of persecution.

As with most aspects of family history research, DNA testing may often lead to more questions than answers.  However, as my experience illustrates, one definitely learns more than one previously had known, and sometimes, one learns the unexpected.  As these tests evolve and results become even more granular, I look forward to seeing which one best illustrates the intricate link between genetic ethnicity and historical events.  In other words, I may never know if I am related to the Norman leader, Robert Guiscard, but that's ok.  However, it would be great to know whether my Scandinavian genes are closer to him and his Norman brethren or the Lombards who preceded them.