Thursday, November 15, 2012

Armenia, DNA and Ethnicity

Self-identity, what culture or ethnicity do you identify with? Your current culture? Your immigrant ancestor’s culture? Perhaps you identify with a culture buried deep in your DNA.

See this article as a great primer on the differences between - Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Heritage, and Culture.

Culturally, my wife is an American. I could even say that she is a New Englander. She grew up in an Armenian family, but she doesn’t know the language. What she does identify with is the food and family. Her immigrant grandfather, Reuben, was born in Turkey. Turkish was his nationality, but culturally he associated deeply with the Armenian heritage that was strong in Adana.

Nations redraw their lines, form and dissolve over the course of decades. If you had lived in central Europe over the past few hundred years, one day you might be French and the next day German, only to be French again in a week.

How long does it take us to lose our ethnicity? If I took my family to Armenia and we stayed there for three or four generations, would they think of themselves as Armenian American Armenians. I doubt it. Each generation would absorb the culture around them to a greater degree. Given enough time, some descendants might think that it was just family mythology that they ever lived in the US. We’ve always been here.

We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. That goes for the entire planet.

If I look at another side of my wife’s family, they’ve been in America for over 350 years. Their immigrant ancestor, Edward Clark, was ethnically English. In turn, Edward’s immigrant ancestor was Norman and the immigrant ancestor before that was Danish. I can keep going back, Iberia, Asia and Africa. Which culture should they identify with? Nationality is fleeting and uncertain. Ethnicity is in your genes, embrace all the cultures of your ancestors.

About 50,000 years ago, there were no humans in Armenia, or for that matter, Asia Minor. Over the intervening years, folks trickled in from every direction. Let’s look at the current distribution of Armenian y-DNA.

J1c & J2a
Arabic / Semitic
I2a & R1a

This is a snapshot of modern Armenia. Without analyzing individual haplotypes from this dataset, it is difficult to determine which group arrived first. More than likely each group had multiple waves of immigration across history. I’ve created the map below for you to get a feel for the origin and flow of the major haplogroups.

It’s not unusual for groups J1c, J2a and G2a to have high percentages. Those groups also have their origins in that region. The large portion of R1b can be attributed to the crusaders passing through for hundreds of years. Many of the taverns in this region have signs that say, ‘Alexander the Great slept here’. His empire would have contributed the E1b DNA as they conquered eastward and the Dravidian DNA flowed back toward Greece with the spoils. The Roman and Byzantine influence brought the Balkan DNA. The Huns also stopped by on their way to conquer Eastern Europe.

My wife can count Armenian as part of her heritage, with roots on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Someday I will find her living Armenian cousins in order to get DNA tests. Those results will allow me to identify her deeper ancestral ethnicity.

On another line, she is descended from four generations of Sea Captains from Maine with Scottish origins. Should my wife self-identify with all the cultures of her ancestors? Probably not. Should she learn about and understand all those cultures? Definitely. We can pick and choose the best parts of our ancestral heritage and create our own unique ethnic identity. She has a love for the ocean that didn’t come from any early family experience. It’s in her DNA.

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