Prompted by a Family Tree DNA sale, I had my autosomal DNA tested. I thought it might answer something my family has always been curious about.
What is autosomal DNA? In the nucleus of each of our cells are 23 pairs of chromosomes; 22 of these pairs are called ‘autosomes’, while the 23rd pair determines your sex (male or female). You inherit your autosomal DNA randomly from both parents and, unlike Y-DNA (direct paternal line) and mtDNA (direct maternal line), all branches of your ancestry will have contributed to it a some point. Therefore, your autosomes are a mosaic of your complete genetic record – pieces of the whole pie which make up you.
As an existing Family Tree DNA customer, I didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of applying for a new DNA testing kit. They still had my original sample ‘on ice’, so it was just a case of ordering the autosomal test through my online FTDNA account and waiting a few weeks for the results.
What did I get for my money? FTDNA compared my results against their ‘Family Finder’ database of other customers and posted the matches to my account. The list of matches can be sorted into near or distant cousins. I can contact my matches by email, or search the family trees of those who have uploaded their GEDCOM files for any common ancestors. Any common ancestral surnames are also highlighted. FTDNA emails me whenever I get any new matches.
FTDNA also compared my sample against their world DNA population database, known as ‘Population Finder’. From that, they give me a percentage breakdown of the different ancestries that make up my autosomal DNA. This was the bit I was interested in.
The results? I am 94.74% Western European (± 1.72%) and 5.26% Middle Eastern (± 1.72%).
The 95% Western European bit comes as no surprise. I’ve traced the bulk of my ancestors back to before the Industrial Revolution and they have always been in cold and rainy Northern England and Ireland.
Are there any clues to it in my family? Possibly, yes.
Me and my older brother look alike, and we both look like our dad. As one girl in our neighbourhood once vividly put it, “you look like he just spat you both out.” The main difference is, his complexion is darker than mine. This was particularly noticeable whenever we escaped windswept Lancashire and went on holiday to Spain. I would always get a decent tan after a week or so, but he would turn mahogany within a couple of days.
Our dad is fair, but our mum is dark. My mum’s sister is fair, and so was their mother, but their father – my maternal grandfather – was very dark. I’ve written before about my grandad, Frank Thompson (1911-1972), and his exploits in the Royal Navy 1932-45. As a sailor, he spent many years on duty in the Mediterranean and old photos of him and his shipmates on shore leave show just how brown the exposed bits of his skin used to turn.
Frank was one of 10 children and most of his brothers also had dark complexions and the ‘quick-tan’ feature which no doubt made them popular with the ladies when they were younger. Here he is in later years with 2 of his brothers, standing out amidst a sea of typically paler Lancashire faces.
The Thompsons were Lancashire born and bred going back to at least the 18th century, but Frank’s father, James Thompson (1885-1957), left Blackburn for Portsmouth at the age of 17 to join the Navy in 1902. He met and married a Portsmouth girl, Ellen Purchess (1887-1956), who settled back in Lancashire with him when his sailing days were done. My mum has no photos of her grandmother Ellen, but recalls her looks as being darkly exotic too (“I always thought she looked Romany”).
So, while 87.5% of my (recent) ancestry comes from Northern England and Ireland, 12.5% comes from a major sea port on the south coast of England. This could be the gateway for my 5% Middle Eastern origin.
Last night I set about looking for ‘paper evidence’ from my family tree. I believe a possible link is through Ellen Purchess’ mother, Mary Ann Gilbert (1858-1928). The Gilberts lived for generations in Portsmouth, back to at least the early 1600s. I found that one of them, George Gilbert, married an Elizabeth Bignall in 1759. Elizabeth Bignall was the daughter of a Martin Bignall and an Elizabeth Jewman. Aha! The name Jewman sounds highly anglicized, like a label that a group of medieval English villagers would give to a man of Jewish origin in their midst. The only other trace I could find of Elizabeth Jewman is her marriage to Martin Bignall in the Holy Trinity Church, Gosport, in 1737.
However, Elizabeth Jewman is my 7 x great grandmother and therefore represents just 0.2% of my ancestry – too remote to account for FTDNA’s 5%.
I decided to do some quick research on a topic I wasn’t familiar with – the history of the Jews in England. And I found it isn’t a happy one. The first recorded Jewish settlement in England dates back to the reign of William the Conquerer in 1070, although Jews may have lived here since Roman times. Initially they lived on good terms with their Gentile neighbours; some amassed great wealth through trade which became a useful source of tax revenue for the king’s exchequer. However, the crusades fostered anti-Jewish sentiment and communities in London and York were massacred in the Pogroms of 1189-90. Edward I had the Jews officially expelled from England in 1290, though Judaism continued to be practised in secret.
It wasn’t until 1651 that Oliver Cromwell informally readmitted them. They were mainly Iberian Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition in the 1490s and had settled as refugees in Amsterdam. Cromwell hoped they would transfer their lucrative trade interests in the Spanish Main from Holland to England. They mostly settled in London, though the appearance of Spanish-sounding surnames in Portsmouth’s records around this time suggests a small number settled there too.
The accession of the German King George I to the British throne in 1714 encouraged a large number of German Jews to emigrate to England; some also found their way to Portsmouth, which was then rapidly developing as a naval and mercantile port. At that time they formed the most substantial British Jewish settlement outside of London and had a close and important relationship with the Royal Navy.
I discovered that the first Portsmouth Jews settled in Oyster Street in the 1730s. This rang a bell with me. Coincidently (or perhaps not), this is where Mary Ann Gilbert’s mother Elizabeth Low (c.1830 – ?) is recorded as living in the 1841 and 1851 censuses, until her marriage to James Gilbert (1828-1868) in Portsmouth Registry Office in 1852. I’d previously given up on researching the Low line because I couldn’t find any parish records relating to them. I found out that the surname Low, or Lowe, can itself be an anglicized form of the German Jewish surname Löwe, or Loewe, which in turn is a germanized form of Levy. And didn’t people at that time usually only marry in a registry office if it was a shotgun wedding, a ‘secret’ wedding, or if one of the parties was Jewish? Elizabeth Low is my is my 3 x great grandmother and therefore represents 3.125% of my ancestry, which brings me a lot closer to FTDNA’s estimate.
However, until I find solid evidence of ancestral Jewish origins, all of the above – the dark complexions, Jewman, Low, Oyster Street, the registry office wedding – is conjecture.
But then most DNA ancestry IS largely conjecture. FTDNA puts many caveats on its Population Finder tool. Firstly, it is currently in BETA testing and results will change as they make adjustments to the program and representative populations used. In other words, the current reference databases are inadequate. Until more people are DNA tested, many Western Europeans may find they are ‘assigned’ some Middle Eastern ancestry simply as a nearest match.
FTDNA also points out that human history (and anthropology) is much more complex than the bounds of a single region of origin. This is especially the case for people from Southern Europe and the Middle East, which has seen migrations throughout history and pre-history, through postglacial climate change, the expansion of farming, war, trade, enslavement, and forced religious conversions. The Iberian Peninsula, for example, is a particular nexus for genetic admixture. According to a 2008 study its inhabitants have an average of 20% Sephardi Jewish DNA (though varying widely around the Peninsula), but part of those origins may stretch back to the Neolithic, and even the Mesolithic Middle East. The region has always been a source of people migrating northwards, and it could be the norm, rather than the exception, for all Western Europeans to have a dash of Middle Eastern genetic ancestry.
Whatever the source of ours, it has persisted in our family and crops up now and again in our everyday lives: my grandad Frank, on parade at the Cenotaph for Armistice Day, being asked by a member of the public if he was Egyptian; my mum frequently being mistaken for a local while on holiday in Spain; me being mistaken for an Israeli in Jerusalem (my 2 mates also from NW England weren’t); my red-haired son who tans very quickly in the sunshine; and my fair-haired niece being told by her dentist that her mouth cavity was of a ‘Southern European’ structure (I didn’t know there were regional differences either!).
My autosomal DNA results have shone a bit of light on these quirks, but as usual have prompted more questions than answers – though the test has been no less worth doing for that.