10 Surprising Ancestral Origins Revealed by DNA Testing

10 Surprising Ancestral Origins Revealed by DNA Testing

How sure are you of your origins?  Here are 10 examples where DNA testing has thrown up some unexpected results.

1.         African DNA found in Yorkshireman

In 2007 the Daily Mail ran a report on John Revis, a Yorkshireman who was so blond and blue-eyed when he was younger that he thought he was directly descended from Viking or Anglo-Saxon stock.  However, when his DNA was analysed as part of a wider study linking the male Y-chromosome to northern surnames, he was found to be haplogroup A1.

John RevisA1 is very rare and highly specific to west Africa.  John Revis shared this genetic match with 7 other northern Englishmen with the surname Revis.  He had traced his direct paternal line back to the mid-1700s and found his ancestors where mostly bakers from the north of England; there was nothing in his family history to suggest recent African origins.  However, his DNA presented the first genetic evidence of Africans living among ‘indigenous’ British people.Africans were first recorded as being present in northern England 1,800 years ago, when they formed a contingent of the Roman garrisons defending Hadrian’s Wall against raids by Scottish tribes.  Much later in the 16th and 17th centuries the slave trade also brought an influx of Africans to the British Isles, and by the late 18th century there were around 10,000 black people living in Britain.  Some former slaves rose quite high in society.

It is possible that John Revis descends directly from the north African clans that comprised a small part of the armies of Roman Britain from 43 – 410 AD, but the Roman occupation left only a tiny genetic footprint on the modern English population and it is thought more likely that the source of his African DNA is a slave from West Africa.

The contributor of the A1 chromosome to the Revis surname may not be its founder.  He may have been a first-generation immigrant African, or a European-looking man carrying the A1 Y-chromosome introduced into England some time earlier.  It could have been many generations earlier, with descendants of earlier lineages now extinct, or not yet tested.

Roman genetic legacy in Abergele

2.         Roman legacy in DNA of Welsh men?

A more likely Roman genetic legacy in the British Isles lies in the town of Abergele on the northern coast of Wales, where a curiously high percentage (as much as one third) of males bear the Y-chromosome haplogroup E1b1b1a1b (or E-V13).  E-V13 originated in northeastern Africa around 18,000 years ago and entered Europe at some time via the Balkans.  It remains common in the Balkans and Italy today.  Why the men of Abergele carry the rare marker is not yet known, but its high frequency could be due to the settlement of the town during the 1st to 4th centuries AD by Roman soldiers.  E-V13 is largely absent in central England, which could indicate a replacement of Romano-British people by Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century AD.

3.         Chinese villagers ‘descended from Roman soldiers’?

At the end of 2010 the Telegraph reported how genetic testing had revealed that nearly two thirds of the DNA of villagers in Liqian, northwestern China, was of ‘Caucasian origin’.  This prompted speculation that they had European blood, and may even be descended from a fabled ‘lost legion’ of Roman soldiers.

The story goes that Roman legionaries settled in the area after fleeing a disastrous battle in 53BC, between an army led by Marcus Crassus, and a larger force of Parthians from Iran.  Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus himself was beheaded, but some legionaries supposedly escaped and marched east to evade the enemy.  The theory supposes that they fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese in 36BC, before being absorbed by the local population on the steppes of western China.

Some inhabitants do have European physical traits, such as wider noses, blue or green eyes, and fair hair and skin, mixed with typical Chinese features.  However, no Roman artifacts have ever been discovered in the archaeology of the region to back up the story.  The Roman and Chinese empires probably had only indirect contact with each other through merchants along the Silk Road, as Eastern silk and spices were traded for goods such as Roman glassware.

But the myth of a lost Roman legion assimilating with a Chinese population and leaving their genetic imprint on them to this day is compelling, so it’s no wonder the press picked it up.  Even the villagers themselves revel in it, particularly Cai Junnian, nicknamed by friends and relatives ‘Cai the Roman’, whose face seems to sum up the whole story.

Cai 'the Roman' and Julius Caesar
Cai ‘the Roman’ and Julius Caesar

Perhaps the surprising outcome is that DNA testing actually appears to have debunked the whole myth.

The DNA of a sample of 227 male Liqians shows that 77% of their Y chromosomes are strictly East Asian.  They are closely related to the Chinese majority, and far removed from Central Asian and Western Eurasian populations.  Where they received their ‘European’ features from is a mystery (it may have something to do with Indo-European speaking nomadic tribesmen in the region before 1000 AD), but it is highly unlikely to be the Romans.

4.         Viking – American Indian DNA in Icelanders?

In 2010 the National Geographic reported that more than 80 living Icelanders have a genetic variation in their mitochondrial DNA similar to one found mostly in Native Americans.  It probably entered Icelandic bloodlines around 1000 AD, suggesting that a Viking-Indian child was born in Iceland 500 years before Columbus landed in the  Americas, and that the child’s Native American mother voyaged to Iceland with Viking explorers.

Icelandic Viking child with Native American mother

There is no historical evidence that Icelandic Vikings took a Native American woman back home with them, but there are accounts and archaeological evidence that Icelandic Vikings settled in Greenland around 1000 AD and went on to establish a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland.  Icelandic sagas tell of their encounters with the ‘Skraelings’ – the Norse term for American Indians – but they seem to have been mostly hostile.

Nonetheless, DNA evidence shows that a sample of Icelanders carry a Native American variation from 4 specific lineages, descended from 4 women born early in the 18th century.  These 4 lineages are likely descended from a single woman with Native American DNA, and at least one lineage’s variation has mutated in a way that would likely have taken centuries to occur.

No living Native American has the exact genetic variation found in the Icelanders, but of the many versions related to the Icelandic variant, 95% found in Native Americans.  This suggests that the precise Icelandic variation may have come from a Native American group that died out after the arrival of Columbus and later European settlers.

5.         Native American DNA found in English women

Doreen Isherwood
Doreen Isherwood

In 2007 the BBC reported that mitochondrial DNA testing revealed two white English women as descendents of Native Americans.  Doreen Isherwood and Anne Hall found out about their heritage after commercial DNA testing revealed them to possess mtDNA haplogroups A and C, characteristic of the indigenous people of the Americas.  Mrs Isherwood had no idea of her Native American origins, as she had traced her family history to a long line of Lancashire cotton weavers.  She believed her American Indian ancestor must have arrived in Britain in the 17th or 18th century, as she had traced her maternal ancestors back to 1798 and found no sign of her.


In his book Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776, historian Alden Vaughan explains how Native Americans began arriving in England as early as the 16th century, mainly as curiosities for a fascinated English audience; Sir Walter Raleigh brought back several individuals from the Orinoco valley. Some were later brought over to learn English and go back to the colonies as translators, while others travelled in colonial delegations to petition the British government over issues such as trading rights. The most famous Native American visitor, Pocahontas, went to England in 1616 accompanied by several of her fellow tribesmen, but she died there the following year. Some of her party stayed in England for several years. Later in the 17th Century, Native Americans were brought over as slaves.

There is nothing in the historical record about any relationships between Native American women and Englishmen, but given Mrs Isherwood and Mrs Hall’s DNA results, it seems probable.

6.         Crusaders left genetic legacy in the Lebanon

Lebanese Christian leader - Bechara Boutros Rai
Lebanese Christian

In 2008 the BBC reported that the Genographic Project had detected genetic traces left by medieval crusaders in the Middle East, following the analysis of the Y chromosomes of 926 Lebanese males.  Some Christian Lebanese men carry the chromosome WES1, usually found in Western Europe.


Four crusades passed through the Lebanon between the 11th and 13th Centuries and the majority of the crusader armies comprised soldiers from England, France, Germany and Italy.  Many of the men stayed to build fortifications and settlements, and mixed with the local populations.

Lebanese Muslim men tend to have high frequencies of haplogroup J1, typical of the Arabian Peninsula and responsible for bringing Islam to the Lebanon in the 7th and 8th Centuries.

Male genetic variation in the Lebanon is unusual in falling more along religious lines than geographical lines, but more in terms of their overall genetic admixture more unites them than divides them.

7.         Florida Accountant is a likely descendant of Genghis Khan

In 2006 Fox News told how Florida accountant Tom Robinson knew that his great, great-grandfather had come to the United States from England, but his family history research had drawn a blank beyond that.

Tom Robinson and Genghis Khan
Tom Robinson and Genghis Khan

When he turned to genetic genealogy to uncover more about his origins he discovered that he was probably a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, the great Mongol ruler who conquered vast tracts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century.

Y chromosome research suggests that as many as 16 to 17 million men, mainly in Central Asia, share a common ancestor bearing haplogroup C3.  The likeliest candidate is Genghis Khan himself, whose territorial conquests famously extended to the local female populations.  No tissue samples from Genghis Khan have yet been found, so any descent from him is based on probabilities.  However, his harem probably included hundreds, if not thousands of women; his (recorded) sons would have kept similar sized harems in their own separate kingdoms.

8.         Hitler’s Jewish Ancestry?

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler

In 2010 Belgian news magazine Knack reported that journalist Jean-Paul Mulders and historian Marc Vermeeren had tested Hitler’s Y-chromosome DNA.  They had trailed Hitler’s grand-nephew, a US citizen named Alexander Stuart-Houston, to obtain his DNA sample from a used serviette.  The testing led to the discovery of more relatives in Austria.

The Y-DNA samples apparently belonged to Haplopgroup E1b1b.  E1b1 is most commonly found in North Africa and accounts for over 10% of all Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish male lines; it appears to be one of the founding lineages of the Jewish population.

Hitler’s Jewish ancestry has often been suggested by historians, based on an  uncorroborated story that his father, Alois, was the illegitimate offspring of Hitler’s grandmother Maria Schickelgruber and a Jewish man named Leopold Frankenberger.  Alois was supposedly conceived while his mother was in domestic service to the Frankenberger family in Graz.  The story was apparently fuelled by Hitler’s order in 1939 that the small, deserted Austrian village of Döllersheim, his father’s birthplace and the site of his grandmother’s grave, be used as a range for artillery practice.

Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli

Neo-Nazi groups dismiss claims of Hitler’s Jewish ancestry as a hoax.  In his book Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, historian Ian Kershaw states that there was no Jewish family called Frankenberger in Graz during the 1830s, in fact all Jews were excluded from that part of Austria until the 1860s, and that there is no evidence that Hitler’s grandmother ever lived in Graz.  It can also be argued that E1b1b1 is common throughout Europe, particularly southern Europe, and that Hitler’s direct ancestors might as easily have been Italian, Greek or Albanian.  Of course, they could also have been southern European Jews; Victorian British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was, for example, descended from Italian Sephardic Jews.

If Hitler’s Y-DNA does match that recovered from a used serviette in an American diner, it would be ironic if he was directly descended from the ‘sub-human’ race he exterminated in their millions.  In any case, Hitler’s ancestry appears not to originate with the Western branch of the Indo-European peoples, or the ‘Aryan race’, who he thought embodied the physical ideal of Nazi Germany.


As well as those examples which reveal unexpectedly far-flung ancestors, ancestral origins can be just as surprising by remaining tied to one specific location, despite the passage of thousands of years.

9.         Cheddar Village residents related to 9,000 year old Cheddar Man

The ‘Cheddar Man’ is a human male whose 9,000 year old skeleton was found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England.

Mitochondrial DNA was extracted from one of the Cheddar Man’s teeth, as well as from another 12,000 year old tooth found in the cave.  Both samples belonged to mtDNA haplogroup U5.  MtDNA taken from 20 living residents of the nearby village of Cheddar produced 2 exact matches and 1 match with a single mutation.

Cheddar Man and Adrian Targett
Cheddar Man and Adrian Targett

The exact matches were with 2 local schoolchildren, and the close match was with their history teacher, Adrian Targett.  They (in common with around 1.5% of Britain’s population carrying mtDNA haplogroup U5) shared a common ancestor with the Cheddar Man through his maternal line.

The Independent ran a feature on Mr Targett in 1997.  He was born in Bristol, just 15 miles away from Cheddar.  The results do not necessarily mean that his family never strayed far from Cheddar over the past 9,000 years, but it is a distinct possibility.  The matches do show that many modern Britons are still descended from ancient European Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer tribes, not purely from later incomers to the British Isles.

10.       Two local German men direct descendants of 3,000 year old Lichtenstein Cave dwellers.

The Lichtenstein Cave, located in the Harz mountains of Lower Saxony, Germany, is a Bronze Age archaeological site where the 3,000 year old skeletal remains of 19 males and 21 females where discovered.

DNA tests conducted on the skeletons revealed that their mtDNA haplogroups included: 17 from H, 5 from T2, 9 from U5b and 5 from J*.  Of the 15 male remains tested their Y-haplogroups included: 12 from I2b2, 2 from R1a and 1 from R1b.  The analysis showed that most of the bones were from the same family.

The DNA of 270 local people was also tested as part of the archaeological research, and the Y chromosome results for two local men proved to be an exact match with the I2b2 samples.  Their stories were picked up by the BBC and ABC News.  Manfred Huchthausen and Uwe Lange knew each other from living in the same village near the excavation site.  Lange used to play in the cave as a child, little knowing that his direct ancestors had lived there between 1,000 and 700 BC and were actually buried there.  Before the discovery, he had traced his family history back to 1550.  Through DNA testing, both he and Manfred Huchthausen now share the longest proven family tree in the world, going back 120 generations.

Manfred Huchthausen and his Bronze Age ancestor
Manfred Huchthausen and his Bronze Age ancestor – photo by Frank May

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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015