Ethnicity, Admixture and Me

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One of the most prominent  features of DNA testing is the ethnic admixture results you get with each test. Now, there has been some debate about the reliability of admixture tests. It is true that no one test will tell you every ethnic group that left it’s mark on your genome. For starters, ethnic groups have changed over time and so have the geo-political boundaries that encompassed these groups. Furthermore, each DNA testing company has it’s own ethnic reference samples with which they compare your genome with and this also influences their results.

That being said, I do find admixture results to be somewhat informative if one’s family history includes the ancestries and geographical locations indicated. As a child of the African Diaspora, I also believe that admixture tests do point to geographical areas where my ancestors may have come from during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For African-Americans, this is a key reason as to why we take DNA test in the first place. We want to find that missing piece of our ancestral self that was denied to us.

So, Who Did I Think I Was?

Whoever I thought I was pre-DNA test was only a partial portrait of me. I already knew all my usual suspect ancestries by name (i.e., West African, British, Irish, Dutch, German, Eastern European/Jewish, Spanish,and Native American) prior to taking the test so I expected them to show up in my results. And they did. However, it was the UNUSUAL SUSPECT ancestries that caught my attention big time. My post-DNA test results now included Central-South Africa, East Africa, South/Southeast Asia, North Africa, Italy, France, and Scandinavia. Hmmm… Now, I wondered where and when did these ancestries enter my genome. I mean I thought I knew where my African and European ancestors came from. Well, I guess NOT!  LOL Now, I needed to further investigate my new roots.


My 23andme Admixture Results


My AncestryDNA Admixture Results


My DNA Tribes Admixture Results, Pt. 1


My DNA Tribes Admixture Results, Pt. 2


Unusual Suspect #1: Central-South Africa, East Africa, and South/Southeast Asia

One of the biggest surprises that my family encountered with DNA testing was my cousin Andrea’s family’s mtDNA results. Though my own mtDNA is H1 because my maternal matrilineal line traces back to Ireland, Andrea’s mtDNA, which comes from our shared 2nd great-grandmother, is M23. This haplogroup is found only in MADASGASCAR!


My M23 Cousins

The people who made up the original settlers came from East (Indonesia, Oceania, and  Melanesia, ) and Africa (East African and South Africa).  According to a paper written by Cox, Nelson, et. al., 

“The settlement of Madagascar is one of the most unusual, and least understood, episodes in human prehistory. Madagascar was one of the last landmasses to be reached by people, and despite the island’s location just off the east coast of Africa, evidence from genetics, language and culture all attests that it was settled jointly by Africans, and more surprisingly, Indonesians. Nevertheless, extremely little is known about the settlement process itself… Maximum-likelihood estimates favour a scenario in which Madagascar was settled approximately 1200 years ago by a very small group of women (approx. 30), most of Indonesian descent (approx. 93%). This highly restricted founding population raises the possibility that Madagascar was settled not as a large-scale planned colonization event from Indonesia, but rather through a small, perhaps even unintended, transoceanic crossing.”

When I saw all of my admixture results, I knew that my Central-South African, East African, and South/Southeast Asian ancestry could be traced back to my maternal Madagascar ancestors. Out of all the admixture tests, DNA Tribes has the best admixture breakdown. All of my relatives, who have taken the DNA Tribes SNP Analysis, have ancestry from South Africa (Bantu, Pedi, and/or Nguni), East Africa (Somali or Ethiopian), South Asia(India), Southeast Asia (Borneo, Malay, Indo-Chinese), and Oceania (Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Guam).

Here is my 2nd cousin 1XR Mildred’s DNA Tribes Native Population Analysis. Mildred is a direct matrilineal descendant of my 2nd great-grandmother and DNA Tribes has her as being 4.5% Southeast Asian. Her Madagascar ancestry is much clearer— at least I think so.

My cousin Mildred’s DNA Tribes Results

In addition, my maternal family has colonial roots in both New Jersey and New York. Slaves from Madagascar were directly imported into New York City between 1678-1698 and then from 1716-1721. They were also directly imported into Perth Amboy, NJ. In his book, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in America, Michael A.Gomez writes:


Madagascar Slaves in New York

My 3rd great-grandmother, Susan Pickett, was born in Morris County, NJ in 1809. Her mother, a slave named Tun, was born in the late 1700s in either NY or NJ. It is quite possible that Tun’s maternal Madagascar ancestors arrived during one of those two periods. I am now searching for Tun in her slave owner’s records. Apparently she was owned by someone who then rented her out to another master.

Unusual Suspect #2: North Africa

Prior to my DNA tests, I only had knowledge of my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side. Post-DNA test, I now know that I am also a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Spain. My North African ancestry is from my paternal side. Following their 1492 expulsion from Spain, Jews settled mainly in the Ottoman Empire, Morocco and Algeria, southern France, Italy, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Mexico, Spanish South America, Brazil, Netherlands and her territories (Curaçao, Suriname, Aruba and New Amsterdam) England (as well as English colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica), Germany, Denmark, Poland, Austria and Hungary. So, some of my North African ancestry comes from my Sephardic  roots. But, I also have Puerto Rican ancestors via the Canary Islands which includes the Guanches who are of Berber descent from North Africa.

My DNA Tribes SNP Analysis also includes Fulani ancestry. The Fulani were known to be nomadic and migrated from West Africa to North Africa. This ancestry may come from either one of my parents.

Unusual Suspect #3: France, Corsica, and Italy

French and Italian ancestry is very common in Puerto Ricans. This is due to the Spanish Crown issuing the 1815 Royal Decree of GracesThis decree lasted until 1898 when the US took over Puerto Rico.

Royal Decree of Graces of 1815

King Ferdinand decided that one of the ways to end the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico and Cuba was to allow non-Spanish Catholic Europeans (e.g., the French, Corsican, Irish, and Italians), who swore loyalty to the Spanish Crown, to settle on both islands. These new immigrants were given land grants and papers indicated that they were loyal to both  the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. After 5 years, they could become Spanish subjects. It was these immigrants who became the sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee planter class with Africans being the slave labor class.

Part of my French ancestry is due to French immigration to Puerto Rico at this time. (By the way, I have some Puerto Rican cousins with the surnames LeGrand, Betancourt, Poupart, and Ruitort among others.)  However, some of my French ancestry is also due to Corsican immigration to the island. In the early 1800s, Yauco was Ground Zero for Corsican Immigration. Corsica was originally an Italian territory that was lost to France in 1768 as such a lot of Corsican surnames are Italian in origin.

My paternal grandfather, Antonio Vega Bonilla, was born in Susua Alta, Yauco, Puerto Rico as were his ancestors.  On some of my paternal family’s birth and marriage certificates, people with Corsican surnames like Cardi, Bernadini, Filiberti, and Oliveri are listed as relatives who were witnesses to those events. I believe my paternal grandfather’s ancestors intermarried with, or had children by, these Corsican immigrants.

As I communicate with some of Euro DNA cousins, I am also finding that I have French ancestry on my maternal side as well. Some of this French ancestry is from French Huguenots who arrived in the US during colonial times from England. I also have a lot of French Canadian/Arcadian ancestry. I have no idea where this ancestry comes from and I am still investigating.

Unusual Suspect #4: Scandinavia 

When I first received my 23andme results, they only listed Finland as a Scandinavian country that apparently left a mark on my DNA. Say what? On their new Ancestry Composition, this changed to the more general Scandinavian category. When I look at my DNA relatives and Ancestry Finder lists, I see DNA cousins with Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian ancestry. I had no knowledge on either side of my family of Scandinavian ancestry. I found this to be interesting. How did I get Finnish DNA???

Well, it turns out that there was a New Sweden colony that extended from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and up to New Jersey between the years of 1638-1655. Finland was part of Sweden at this time. As a result, a lot of Finnish and Swedish people immigrated to this colony. By 1690, the Swedes and Finns had settled in Cape May, Salem, and Gloucester counties in New Jersey. When I look at my DNA 5th-8th cousins’ family trees on, I see a lot of surnames from Salem and Gloucester counties in NJ,  but I don’t recognize the names. It may be that I inherited Scandinavian DNA from a slave owner sometime in the colonial NJ era. As this time,  the best I can do is to be on the lookout for any Scandinavian names that pop up in my research on my NJ ancestors.

So where does all of this new admixture analyses leave me? 

My admixture results do not change what I consider myself to be. I will always be half African-American and Puerto Rican. The culture(s) you were raised in do(es) count for something after all. You are not just the sum of your DNA. I think of admixture results as clues to telling me more about my ancestors. By looking at who they may have been and how they ended up in the locations where I found them, I learn more about my family history.  But, admixture results still lead me to look for the paper trail –no matter how elusive it seems– on my ancestors.



26 thoughts on “Ethnicity, Admixture and Me

    1. I can really relate to your opinion on finding all of your admixture from DNA testing. My feelings about my findings are similar to yours.

  1. Some random thoughts – the Vikings raided Ireland and England regularly during a certain tie period. I’m sure they left their DNA. Were the French Huguenots and the French Canadian/Arcadias from the same area of France? Interesting read and lots of research here.

    1. Kristin-
      I have to further research my French Canadian ancestry. I also wonder if some of my ancestors fled to Canada after the Revolutionary War and intermarried with them. Or, if some of my ancestors who were French Huguenots just immigrated to Canada. One thing the admixture tests do is to encourage us to become masters of the history of migration.


    2. “Vikings”, of Norse heritage, are genetically not related to “Finns” of Fenno-Ugric heritage. It’s easy to confuse them, my American husband keeps getting things wrong, too, and he’s married to a Fenno-Swede, who grew up as a 6% linguistic and ethnic minority in Finland… The Fenno-Ugric ancestors migrated from the Ural region in Siberia in prehistoric times, and speak their own languages (represented today in for example Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian), completely unrelated to the Germanic languages that Old Norse and modern Scandinavian tongues (Swedish, Nynorsk, Bokmal, Danish, Icelandic, Faroe, etc. If you speak one, you can make yourself understood by a native speaker of one of the others, and vice versa. My dialect of Swedish and Nynorsk sound so alike that I don’t always catch myself speaking to a Norwegian. Finns can do the same with Estonians, sort of) are related to.

      Their starting area in the historic global migration of peoples may explain why apparently Finns and Native Americans can test trace positive for each other’s genes without shared modern ancestry, they probably shared a common ancestor or two 50,000 years ago along the way to their homelands in prehistoric times. The Norse, “Vikings” traveled west from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden both for trade, settlement, and plunder, and others traveled east from Sweden, and possibly from coastal settlements in Estonia, and Finland, along the rivers of Eastern Europe in what is now Russia all the way down to the Black Sea and Constantinople, which paid them protection money to keep them at bay, and to get protection against Muslims vying for control of the city. They settled along the way, and the local tribes called the Norsemen the “Rus”. Their settlement of the area later led to the growth of what would become the Russian Empire.

      I’ve come across shared vocabulary with my native Finnish in places as remote as Mongolia. Many of the words that would have been used to describe things in the days of hunter-gatherers, are shared, and still recognizable today.

  2. It’s amazing all the things in our DNA. I was surprised thinking I knew all and where those Countries where. It’s a lot of work and studying to do. Great Job putting it all together.

    1. True-
      It really is amazing. The thing I like about DNA Tribes SNP Analysis is that it shows how similar we really are. People share a majority of the same genes.


  3. I know this post is old, but I was doing research about Finnish heritage in the Americas, and your work popped up on Google. Your work is fascinating, and inspires me to want to have genomic testing done, too. I’m a Finnish immigrant to the U.S. who arrived less than a decade ago, so I know pretty much what plot of land in Finland my ancestor settled and stayed on 400 years ago. Interesting, and sort of boring at the same time. So someone must say it, because all Americans, even my husband, get this wrong all the time… TECHNICALLY speaking, Finns are “Nordics”, as they are separated from the Scandinavian Peninsula by a sea. They are genetically their own, isolated people consisting of several “tribes”, who still have their regional dialects that can be indecipherable to people from outside their region, as well as some deep seated rivalries (these days with less knifing, and more in the realm of professional and college sports).

    Looking at some forums and blogs dedicated to DNA research, it sounds like some more recent research has noticed that Finns share some genetic markers with Native Americans, which can, when trace amounts are present, also cause a “false positive” of Finnish ancestry for someone of Native American heritage, and conversely, a “false positive” of Native American ancestry to a Finn, whose family has never left Europe, and whose country hasn’t seen a large wave of outside immigration until the second half of the 20th century. This is why ethnic Finns, along with other very isolated populations, such as Sicilians, are used to source genetic research data. It’s easier to isolate genetic disease markers when the population is homogenous and fairly inbred. My phenotype for example is almost entirely made up of known recessive alleles, when you go through your middle school and high school genetics curriculum examples.

    I can’t say whether I can convey my current understanding of Finns in America in a legible fashion, but you can always explore the Finnish American history when you find the time, to get clues as to whether your ancestry may stem from my homeland, or if it has roots in your Native American heritage. I rambled on for a bit out of memory between tending to my toddlers and newborn and other chores, so I hope it’s not too disjointed. The Sami people in Lapland are also culturally very similar to Native Americans, and many of them look like blonde, blue-eyed Inuits.

    Finns are genetically and linguistically their own group, unrelated to Swedes, although they share a common cultural heritage, and a Finnish minority group I hail from along the country’s west coast does speak Swedish. It grates me, I can’t help it, to see a presumption that the *Finns* had slaves, because many of them would have migrated to get away from their own life as tenant farmers and serfs to Swedish landowners in Finland. Some of them may very well have been shipped here as indentured servants themselves, as indentured servitude was common in Swedish controlled Finland in the past. Then, as Finland had become a Russian territory in 1809, Finns made their way to Alaska, then a Russian province with a similar climate and access to natural resources to their own (I spotted an Alaskan named “Heimo” in one show on Discovery a while back. His is a very old Finnish name), and then a later wave of Finnish immigrants from the 1860’s onwards were fleeing “Russification” of their country, language, and culture. These refugees, as they could rightfully be called, are among the ancestors of the part Native American, part Finnish “Findians” in the Great Lakes region. Most of current Finnish descendants in the United States live in the midwest and northwest/west.

    I am not a geneticist, but share an interest for genealogy, and the manifestation of genetic traits, especially understanding the incidence of phenotypes vs genotypes between generations. It doesn’t hurt to understand, if you’re breeding heritage livestock like my current “occupation” when I’m not wearing the “mom” hat. I’m trying to breed out a disqualifiable-at-shows flaw that passes down 100% from the sire, out of animals that all carry the gene. It’s inheritance pattern seems straightforward, but without access to lab testing, I need to breed every bird to see what the phenotype in their offspring is to determine if they carry the mutation. My conservative timeline is to have a couple of verifiably mutation free birds by 2024. It’s enough to write a book on, but I won’t be authoring one any time soon…

    Knowing my heritage and some of my husband’s, I was surprised when all three of our children have a more prominent epicanthic fold (“Asian eye”) than either myself or my husband do, and my daughter, with the way her genetic lottery arranged her features, could easily pass as indigenous Sami, when I am 99% sure she’s not genetically one.

    1. Penny-
      I always encourage people to take a DNA test. Admixture results are not 100% exact, but coupled with local history, family history, and via triangulation with your DNA cousins, can be very informative. Thanks for commenting. It’s amazing what we can learn from DNA.


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