Ancestry and Identity

You know those DNA-test commercials you see on TV? Like the one where the guy always thought he was German, but had to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt? He seems pretty okay about it. Well, one of my siblings did the test and the results have thrown me for a loop.

I grew up thinking of myself as 50% English (my mother) and 50% French/Irish (my father). My maiden name is French, and there are relatives in Quebec who speak little English. Through the surname line, my ancestors can be traced back to the 1600’s when they emigrated from France and landed in Canada. We have information on Irish ancestors’ immigration to Canada back to at least the mid-1800’s. Stories also gave some exciting hints of possible indigenous Canadian and even Romany ancestors. As you can imagine, all of these lines have become a big part of how I see myself.

DNA ChartSo, the test results? 74% English, 8% Irish, 7% Iberian Peninsula, and everything else each 3% or less! But hang on!! Where is the French part? Maybe the tiny 2% from Europe West? What does this mean? Can I still display my family coat of arms? Can I still eat tourtière and sugar pie? Where did all this Englishness come from?

I wonder what my father would have thought of this. It sure doesn’t mesh with the research he did and it’s kind of messing with my mind.

I’m still processing this and, frankly, I can’t quite take it on board. I’m thinking of doing one of the other tests that are out there. Anybody tried any of them?

Here’s a nice confident song about knowing exactly who you are.

21 thoughts on “Ancestry and Identity

  1. Well, Iberian Peninsula could be French-ish (there are Basques there as well). But the reliability of these tests varies strongly. There have been news reports about triplets getting varying results. If your geneaological research shows something else, and it draws on reliable records, I’d probably trust the records over this type of thing. Or maybe do one from a different company and compare the results — before you toss the baguette and switch to whole-meal loaf.

    The whole question of what this means about identity is really bothersome. There’s a series on PBS in the US, “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Prof. Henry Louis Gates, in which prominent people get a genealogy done and usually DNA results are part of it — he does a lot of interviews with people of African descent and the paper records are dicey, and even when they are there it can be difficult to determine the ethnicity of the people involved. He did one with (iirc) Ava du Vernay, and the paper records came up with all of these white people in her family trees, and apparently she was actually worried until her DNA came back over 50 percent African descent. It left me with mixed feelings: it’s definitely not the case that DNA is the only or even necessarily the primary determiner of race in the US. If she was raised thinking she was Black, and society has treated her and continues to treat her that way, isn’t she Black? Whether or not the DNA says she is? What if she’d only been 30 percent of African descent? Would that negate her life and her family’s telling of its own history?

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    • Oh I never thought about the Basques… I’ll have to look into that. But, I do think I’ll try another test, just to see.

      How it affects identity is interesting. Of course, my upbringing from a cultural point of view is unchanged and I still am who I am and have the family history that I always had. Surprisingly, though, I’m really thrown by it and would probably have been more content without having the results. As my sister said, apparently we’re much more boring than we thought!

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      • I have a *very* boring genealogy (insofar as I’m aware of it: I have three cousins with genealogy hobbies who have kept me abreast of things over the years, though, so I’m reasonably confident I’d hear if they discovered anything shocking). All of my antecedents came over in the late 1840s to about 1860 or so, in the great central European immigration in response to famine and political unrest. Two families even met “on the boat.” They all settled within about a 150 mi radius of where I live and intermarried with other people from same regions.

        So as far as ancestry is concerned, I’m actually more “German” than a lot of people who have qualified to migrate “back” to Germany because their ancestors involuntarily lost their citizenship. My ancestors gave it up voluntarily, though, and before the date set by the provisions of current German law. But it’s the “big German” variety in its “east of the Elbe” variation, i.e., German-Polish-central European-possibly some Ashkenazic Jews. French would qualify as “exotic” in my background, too, but it would really surprise me, given what I know about the information in the records, if there were anything like that there.

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        • I’ve always been interested in where people come from. And I’m always surprised that my kids’ friends don’t seem to know their backgrounds. I used to think mine was pretty clear. My husband’s, on the other hand, is really interesting on both sides. His mum is English, but when you go back, the ancestors were Germanic Jews from Moravia, whose descendants changed their surnames to sound more English during World War I. His father’s side comes from an indigenous population in India, mixed up with an English fellow who was sent there to work for the tea company. And they keep finding more interesting little tidbits, too. My kids are quite a mixture.

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  2. I don’t know how much these tests can be trusted! I was just talking to a client of mine the other day and her two sons (by the same father, she SWEARS!) had drastically different results. That makes no sense!

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      • Well, I know that DNA is constantly reshuffled and every egg or sperm has different content ready to be expressed. Also, some traits can skip many generations and then be expressed in a distant descendant. So it’s possible that DNA from an African origin might be missing in one son and present in another, now that I think about it (as was the case with my client, along with several other differences- the main percentages of British Isles were similar, but it was the small percentages that differed wildly in her 2 sons). While I don’t know that I would fully trust the results… it’s still fun to find out, I bet. I’ve been thinking of getting one done for myself!

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  3. I bought one of those tests for myself as a Christmas present and still haven’t done it. Now you’ve got me wondering if the results will give me a major surprise.

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  4. This is amazing! I was given a Christmas gift of a DNA testing kit – which I am assured is from a more reliable company than some – and just haven’t done it yet either. A friend did some genealogy work for me a few years ago and I was surprised how much English blood I have, although I knew My maternal grandmother was English even though she was born in the Orkney Islands. So I really should do the test and see what the results are. I’ll keep you posted – or not – depending on what I find out! LOL 😉

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    • These kits are pretty popular now I think. I’ve always been interested in finding out more, but it never would have occurred to me that there might be English ancestors on my father’s side. I hope you find out some interesting results!

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  5. I never even knew these tests were so readily available! Interesting…
    I know my dad’s family tree goes back to 15th century East Germany / Poland. Much less is known about my mother’s ancestry. There is this tale of French pirates and Hugenots but no French sounding names… I wonder what such a test would reveal.

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