Friday, September 21, 2012

Vandals DNA: Leaving Genetic Graffiti Across Europe

   I have been fascinated by barbarian history since my sixth grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Rose, handed me the textbook on the subject.  I still read everything I can on the topic.  The biggest draw is the mystery of where each tribe came from, appearing out of the shadow of mythology and for many, disappearing into obscurity.  I’m finding that DNA can help answer the questions of ‘Where are they now?’ and ‘Where did they come from?’

   The word barbarian is first seen in the Greek language as barbaros.  One possible origin of the word is that it was coined from the sound of the language used by these nomadic tribes – ‘bar bar bar’.  The Vandals (Vandali) appear in the history books as early as 166 AD and are described as an East Germanic tribe.  The theories on their origins include having Scandinavian roots in the parish of Vendel, Sweden or Germanic roots with a connection to the word meaning to wander (wandeln).

   Even if the Vandals’ name wasn’t derived from the word wandeln, wandering was what they did the most.  Perhaps chased is a better description.  Around 300 AD, the Goths fought with the Vandals and pushed them west along the Danube River.  By 400 AD, the Huns pushed the Vandals further west to the Rhine River.  At the Rhine, the Vandals fought with the Franks, won and moved into Aquitaine (western France), pillaging and plundering the whole way.

Historical Vandali migration

   I’m reminded of an old cartoon where the barbarian leader is addressing his troops – ‘This time, remember: pillage, then burn.’  The term vandalism is directly attributed to the Vandals’ ruthless pillaging and destruction of culturally significant objects.

   In 409 AD, the Vandals crossed into the Iberian Peninsula, only to be chased by the Visigoths and the Roman army into North Africa in 429 AD.  Over the next decades, the Vandals conquered North Africa and made Carthage their capital.  From there they invaded Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and in 455 AD they sacked Rome. Fortunes fade, the Vandals were defeated by the Byzantine Empire in 534 AD and disappeared into history.  The name Vandals may have disappeared but the people didn’t.  They were either assimilated into the local cultures or dispersed as slaves, the spoils of war.

   To figure out ‘Who were the Vandals?’, first I had to figure out ‘Where are they now?’  Based on their historic origins, the Vandals would probably fall into a small group of y-DNA haplogroups.  The ethnic descriptions that I’m using are overly simplistic, just enough to give you a feel for the possible cultures present.


   We can’t assume that the Vandals were genetically homogenous.  At various times they were associated and allied with the Alani and Suevi tribes.  Any DNA trail found, could just as easily belong to a group along for the ride.  I started researching all these haplogroups along the Vandals’ 400-year migration route to find a DNA footprint. The key datasets included records from Sicily, Sardinia, Tunisia, Spain, France and Germany.  These locations create a triangle of migratory patterns, clockwise, counterclockwise and dispersion.  If these sets have evidence of Vandals DNA, there should be a counterclockwise flow around Europe and a west to east flow across the Mediterranean.  Immediately I was able to remove haplogroup N from the running, there were no records.

   I have to admit that going into this project I thought that the Scandinavian I1 haplogroup would be my most likely suspect.  I had built a picture in my mind that all the Germanic tribes had come out of Scandinavia.  I researched this group first, looking for genetic flow across time. Usually I work with an individual record and trace backward through time.  For this project, I’m analyzing large groups in multiple datasets.  At a high level I’m searching for DNA that has migrated from Germany, through France and Spain to Tunisia and then to Sicily and Sardinia.

   Using TMRCA (time to most recent common ancestor) and my own TribeMapper techniques, I was able to identify that the Scandinavian I1 haplogroup formed a parallel dispersion pattern.  The y-DNA genes flowed from Germany down into the Italian peninsula and into the Iberian Peninsula at roughly the same time.  Haplogroups G2a and R1a also fall into this category of dispersion.  These DNA records don’t fit the pattern of the Vandals’ migration.

I1, G2a & R1a migration pattern

   The R1b Celtic-Iberian haplogroup proved more difficult to decipher.  This is a major group in Europe, representing over 60% of the Western European population.  For over 10,000 years, there has been a strong flow out of the Iberian Peninsula toward the British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia.  Detecting a counterflow against that tide is problematic.  The apparent direction of migration across the datasets I researched shows a clockwise pattern out of Spain, into France and Germany and then down the Italian peninsula.  R1b doesn’t look like our Vandals, but I’m going to reserve judgment until better analysis tools are developed.

R1b migration pattern

   I’ve left haplogroup I2a, the Danubians, for last because they have the best correlation to the Vandals.  Their genetic migration does show a counterclockwise flow from Germany, through France and Spain and into Sicily and Sardinia.  This DNA can be found in the historic Vandali regions of Aquitaine, Galicia, Lusitania and Andalusia.  Haplogroup I2a is a dominant Germanic group associated with the Danube River, giving them the nickname Danubian.  This matches the Vandals earliest historical references.

I2a migration pattern

   Myles Standish of Mayflower fame was also haplogroup I2a.  Standish is not closely related to the DNA that I am chasing.  His tribe and the Vandals parted ways over 5,000 years ago.

   Have I found the Vandals, Alans or Suevi?  So far, I have been looking at the past 2,000 years.  If I expand the datasets and research back further in time, additional patterns appear.   The DNA takes me to Georgia, Armenia and Iran.  The timing and the location of these records put us in the historic Alani homeland on the Asian steppe.  The Huns were also responsible for driving the Alans west into Europe around 300 AD.  I’ve been looking for Vandals and I’ve found the Alans instead.

   The I2a1 tribal haplotype that I have identified has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years and has allowed me to follow a migration in and out of Asia and across Europe.  I cannot say that I have found the DNA of all the Alans or that the Alans were only haplogroup I2a.  The correlations that I have made are based on records currently available and it is impossible to say what additional future DNA records may reveal.

   The mystery of the Vandals remains a mystery.  I now have an unexpected peek at a piece of the Alani origins and migrations.  When clients want to know more about their DNA, I can check them against this data.  I’d love to be able to get to a point where I can tell folks - ‘Hey, you’re a Visigoth!’  One of the biggest parts of DNA testing beyond finding family, is connecting ourselves to history, knowing that your ancestors played a role.

© Origin Hunters & OriginsDNA

The DNA of John Cutter West: Connected and Disconnected

   Bill West, author of the blog series ‘West in New England’, has been writing about his ggg-grandfather, John Cutter West, for over five years.  Bill calls him ‘The Elusive John C.’

   Some genealogies connect John Cutter West as the son of Paul West and Hannah Crowell of Liverpool, Nova Scotia.  It has also been suggested that he could be the grandson of Josiah West and Elizabeth Griffith of Plymouth, MA.  Both Paul and Josiah are descended from Francis West of Salisbury, England who immigrated to Duxbury, MA.

   Bill West completed a 37-marker y-DNA test and his results came back as haplogroup J2.  Multiple descendants of Francis West have also been tested.  Their results indicate that Francis West was a member of haplogroup R1b.  Bill is related to Francis West in the same way that J2 is related to R1b, but you have to go back 40,000 years ago to find that family connection rather than 400 years.  DNA results can be a double-edged sword.  They can prove your connection or just as easily disprove your assumptions.

   One of the most exciting events in DNA testing is when you receive your results showing multiple matches with your surname.  If you have already researched a dozen generations, the test is confirmation.  If you are just getting started, the test connects you with cousins.  Or, if you were adopted, getting matches to multiple records with a surname you weren’t expecting will lead you on a path of discovery.  In a survey of major DNA databases, Bill’s genetic record didn’t have any close matches.  The wonderful part of y-DNA testing is the ability to dig deeper.

   Here is what we do know about Bill’s DNA.  Haplogroup J2 has origins in Mesopotamia about 18,500 years ago and it is associated with speakers of the Semitic languages.  The J2 haplogroup is widespread around the Mediterranean with connections to both Arabs and Jews.  Bill’s haplotype, the 37-markers from his test, are a genetic fingerprint that can help us find his tribe.

   I've developed a tool, TribeMapper®, which allows me to take a haplotype record and map ancestors across time and place.  One of the first clues we find is that Bill’s haplogroup is more uniquely related to subgroup J2b2.  Only a test looking for SNP M241 can prove J2b2 for certain.  My next step is to map the DNA to determine which J2b2 ethnicity Bill belongs.

   As I look at slices of time, 4,500 years ago Bill’s ancestors were in places like Turkey, Armenia, Syria and Saudi Arabia.  If I look at a branch of Bill’s tribe at about 3,000 years ago, I see a distinct correlation with locations like Cyprus, the coasts of Italy and Spain and the islands of the Azores.  These places match up with the colonies of the Phoenicians.  Phoenicia had origins in what is modern day Lebanon.  They were known for their extensive maritime trading culture. Phoenicians were not only sea travelling merchants with colonies around the Mediterranean, they had trade routes across Europe as well.  Bill’s closest DNA matches were part of a Phoenician branch that headed into central Europe.

   Looking at a period from 1,300 (Bill’s closest match) to 2,000 years ago, we see a pattern of migration into what is modern day Germany and more specifically those genetic connections appear in cities in the Hessen region.  Research into John Cutter West gives the appearance that he has English origins.  The DNA trail ends in southwest Germany.  We are still left with the fact that there are not enough DNA records to fill the gap between now and 1,300 years ago.  It is possible that Bill’s ancestors migrated further, from Germany to England.

   Now it’s time to move from facts to theory.  The closest DNA matches indicate a connection to the Hessen region of Germany.  An avenue worth investigating is whether one of those ancestors was a Hessian soldier that stayed in America after the Revolution.  Perhaps the reason there are no records of John Cutter West before his 1827 marriage record is that he was born under a different name, a more German sounding name.

   Sometimes DNA can help us make all the connections.  In the case of Bill West, he is still disconnected over the last 1,000 years.  That’s a big space of time with plenty of questions.  More folks are being tested every day and the DNA databases are growing.  Today the data shows that Bill has deep Phoenician roots and that those ancestors settled in the German region of Hessen.  Time and more data will help revise and refine this picture of Bill’s tribe.

© Origin Hunters & OriginsDNA