For reals, y’all! Last month my parents decided to take the Ancestry.com DNA tests, and the results were MOST surprising. (If you’re interested, Ancestry is currently running a special for $79. All it takes is a cheek swab and a few weeks of waiting.)
Families, like countries, create their own mythologies. My mother’s family claimed lots of Irish blood and a fair smattering of Native American. The rest was a mixture of ancestors from Great Britain, France, Germany–and that’s it. Those are literally the countries we found when digging up our personal past. So the first surprises were in my mother’s results: first, very little Native American–as in less than one percent. And while there was lots of British (English, Scottish, Welsh), there was relatively little Irish, and a few things we did NOT expect to see there: Scandinavian and Iberian. Yep, VIKING BLOOD. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Masses of British people have Scandinavian blood because of the Viking incursion into the British isles. But Iberian? We had no clue there was Spanish or Portuguese on my mother’s side. I was absolutely thrilled to discover her family history was far more diverse than we had known.
But the REAL surprises were on Dad’s side. My father’s mother is English and there have always been rumors of Native American blood on his father’s side. So, the expectation was there would be tons of Brit blood and a dollop of Creek or Cherokee. Except. When his results came in, they were overwhelmingly Irish without a trace of Native American–both of which we found intriguing. But what came next was AMAZING.
On his side were hits on North Africa and South Asia. I’m going to caps lock this because I was so gobsmacked: THAT’S TWO WHOLE CONTINENTS WE HADN’T EXPECTED. When we compared the maps, the North African ancestry overlapping his Iberian connection suggested Moorish blood–a deliciously intriguing possibility. But the most staggering thing I discovered came later when I was perusing an article about DNA ancestry and read that a very small percentage of South Asian blood with no other Asian connection IS A STRONG INDICATION OF GYPSY BLOOD. Yeah, let that sink in because it walloped me hard. There are a few other indicators of Romany blood. The Roma originated in what is now India before the diaspora that took them overland across western Asia and into Europe. And my father has trace ancestry from every region between present-day India and Europe–perhaps from Roma moving westward and collecting mates as they traveled? Other indicators: his parents’ surnames (common amongst English Roma) and the fact that his father’s family immigrated to America very early on in the colonial period. There were numerous Roma who were transported or who chose indentured servitude in the colonies rather than face imprisonment in England. There is no definitive answer here, but just a breathtaking possibility and tantalizing clues. (And the notion that I might have unknowingly created a character in Brisbane who shares my own ancestry? Serendipity of the most sublime variety.)
What I find MOST intriguing about all of this is that in all of my books I chose settings that are reflected in my ancestry, even though I didn’t know it. Every location, no matter how exotic or unfamiliar to me, turns out to have a connection to my heritage. Darjeeling? I have South Asian ancestry. Africa? I have North African blood. Transylvania? Check–ancestors from Eastern Europe that I didn’t know about. Every single place I have been drawn to for its exoticism and its unfamiliarity is, ultimately, not unfamiliar at all. The weavers of my DNA walked those hills, fished those waters, plowed those fields, built those stone walls, worshiped those gods, lived and loved and died there–returning to the soil that raised them. It’s part of me–from the wind-whipped steppes of central Asia to the misty green hills of Ireland. How much do our cells remember? Does blood carry memories? Do genes transmit a sense of place? Do the lands we’ve known and loved stay in our blood, threading through the twist of our DNA until our descendants feel the tug of it without knowing why? I like to think so.
In case you’re interested in the numbers, here’s my exact genetic makeup. The countries are present-day names for the areas my ancestors were living 500-1000 years ago. Where more than one country is named, the ancestry is presumed to be from anywhere within those borders.
26.5%–Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
19%–Scandinavian (Norway, Sweden, Denmark)
9%–Western Europe (France, Germany, Belgium)
4.5%–Iberian (Spain, Portugal)
1.5%–Eastern European (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Ukraine)
.5%–Caucasus (Turkey, Armenia)
<.5%–Near East (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria)
<.5%–North African (Morocco, Algerian, Western Sahara)
<.5%–South Asia (India, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan)