Genetic Genealogy

Have you swabbed your cheek and submitted the little brush to a genetic genealogy testing service, then waited in anticipation for the results? I have and I recommend it to everyone interesting in learning about their “deep ancestry.”

For women, this means testing your mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA, which is passed only from mothers to their children. Both daughters and sons receive it, but only daughters pass it on to their children. This provides a way to learn about your maternal ancestors - your mother’s mother’s mother and so on.

I used the Genographic Project from National Geographic, led by geneticist Spencer Wells. There are many other choices, but we have followed Spencer Wells’ research and wanted to be able to contribute our results to his global database.

The results showed that my maternal ancestry is U5b. This is a subset of U5, thought to be one of the oldest haplogroups in Europe, estimated at 45,000 years old and clearly predating the arrival of agriculture.

When I compared the specific pattern of genetic changes in my results to other examples online, I found an exact match in a woman whose female ancestors lived in Haderslev Amt, Denmark, on the Jutland Peninsula. That is an area near the border of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. I know my maternal ancestors come from a place that is not far south from this — Wewelsfleth near Itzhoe in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany — so this was not a surprise. It was good confirmation of my female lineage’s geographic origin.

At least its rather recent geographic orgin. The woman from southern Denmark with the exact match to my mtDNA was born 1 September 1870. That’s less than 150 years ago. Using church records, I have traced my maternal line back to the early 1700s when Metta nee Oldenburg was born in Borsfleth, a village 1.8 miles [2.9 km] from Wewelsfleth, across the Stör River near its merger with the Elbe River.  That’s almost 300 years ago.

Can we find evidence of some of the specific locations where our distant genetic cousins lived further back in time using the research on mtDNA? Yes, we can. We can’t discover who they were or prove they were in our direct line of descent, but we know they are our relatives in our genetic clan or subclan.

Focusing on mtDNA haplogroup U, we find research results placing people with this genetic pattern in Europe before the arrival of farmers from the Near East. U5 in particular has been identified in human remains from the Mesolithic in places such as England, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Russia.

In a chart with the recent article  “Genetic Discontinuity Between Local Hunter-Gatherers and Central Europe’s First Farmers” by B. Bramanti et al. [Science, Vol. 326, No. 5949. (2 October 2009), pp. 137-140], dates, locations and mtDNA clades for 22 ancient skeletons are given. [Note:  the chart is available only in a print copy or  online if you have subscription]. 

The skeletons were found in Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Russia, according to the chart. Dates range from ca. 13,400 calBC [calibrated date B.C.] to ca 2250 calBC. The mtDNA results fall into these clades: U, U4, U5, U5a, U5a1, U5b1, U5b2, K, J and T2e, the most frequent  being U5b2 found in 5 of the 22 skeletons.

A few specific examples from this chart provide a glimpse of what such ancient bones can tell us about geographic locations for our ancient ancestors. Given are the genetic clade, location and date:

U – Hohler Fels, Germany – ca. 13,400 calBC
U4 – Spiginas 4, Lithuania – ca. 6350 calBC
U5 – Ostorf, Germany – ca. 3200 calBC
U5a – Drestwo 2, Poland – ca. 2250 calBC
U5a1 – Lebyazhinka IV, Russia - 8000-7000 calBC
U5b1 – Dudka 2, Poland – ca. 3250 calBC
U5b2 – Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany – ca 6700 calBC

Other mtDNA Charts

Another listing of ancient bones that have yielded dates can be found in an easy-to-read chart. Greece, Britain, Germany, and more are included. Here you will find Cheddar Man, an old skeleton from Britain, dated to 9,000 years ago and a U5a. Also shown is Otzi the Iceman, dated to 3,000 years ago and a K1.

On that chart, my U5b is found in two locations in northern Germany. These are:
> c. 2600 BC – corded ware culture site at Eulau, located just to the southwest of Leipzig, Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany,  which is about 190 miles south of Bremen and Hamburg in northern Germany. This site revealed some genetic evidence of  families and one U5b individual.
> c. 1000 BC – Lichtenstein Cave, a Bronze Age archaeological site near Dorste, Lower Saxony, Germany, where nine ancient skeletons were U5b. This is in northwest Germany.

In that chart above, U5b is also found in skeletons from Medieval Anglo-Saxon England, not surprising as the Angles and Saxons came to England from Denmark and northwest Germany, the area of my maternal ancestors described above. 

Another detailed chart of ancient Eurasian DNA with dates  and many location can be found here.] Interesting, a U5b individual has been found in Leicester, England, dated to 300-400 A.D. in the Romano-British period.

Conclusion

Overall, the ancient bones in the B. Bramanti et al. study give evidence of Haplogroup U, U4 and U5 ancestors in Germany and nearby areas thousands of years ago, giving those in these genetic lineages a sense of our deeper family history and genealogy. The other charts provide similar insights for many other mtDNA haplogroups.

And I can see some of the specific locations and cultures of my ancient U5b maternal ancestors and cousins as much as 5,000 years ago. Genetic genealogy can indeed reveal deep ancestry!

[Note: A detailed background discussion of the archeaological samples used in the B. Bramanti et al. study and the locations were they were found is available online here.]

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Seeking Ancestors from Germany

Many Americans have ancestors from Germany, but are unsure how to find what area of Germany they came from, and who made up the earlier generations of the family.  Strategies to begin your research will depend on what you know so far.

The first thing you should do is talk to your relatives to see if there are records or memories of where in Germany the ancestors came from. And about when.  And where they settled in America. If relatives don’t know a great deal, you can search ship passenger logs or try to obtain the naturalization papers for the earliest male to arrive.

Or you can use Interlibrary Loan at your local library to get the relevant volumes of the Germans to America series and look up the family. There are 67 volumes covering 1840 to 1897.  Click to see the full list of volumes.

Depending on when your German ancestors arrived, the census records can contain references to specific areas of Germany, rather than just Prussia or Germany. 

For my research, the 1870 Census for Calumet County, Wisconsin, contained an invaluable clue.  The elder Ferdinand Hachez, who settled in New Holstein in 1854, was recorded in the 1860 Census as being from Holstein, as so many of the settlers there were. 

But in 1870, he told the German-speaking census recorder that his actual place of origin was Bremen, a free city in Germany. With help from an expert genealogist in Germany, I have found his family in Bremen, a exciting moment in my research. Click for more about the Hachez family.

Depending on when your German ancestors arrived, these sites are worth searching:
> Castle Garden immigration:  http://www.castlegarden.org/
> Ellis Island immigration: http://www.ellisisland.org/

When you have a pretty good idea of where the family originated, you can join one of the genealogy email discussion groups for that part of Germany — and ask for assistance. Most of the genealogy email discussion lists are in English or in both English and German — and the genealogists who help people in the USA speak and write English very well.  For example, here are all the Rootsweb mailing lists for different areas of Germany

You might have luck with a list member knowing of your family. Or you may find a genealogy researcher on the list who offers to help, for a fee. I have had excellent assistance from Klaus Struve, an expert genealogist in Schleswig-Holstein who also has a splendid Web site about people who emigrated from that far northern area of Germany. He now has 63,000 names of emigrants listed. See his Rootdigger site here for a wealth of resources.

With his help, I now have this branch of my family back to the 1700s. The money spent was worth it, for I received transcripts of each of the German originals, followed by an English translation.

Finally, there are additional resources on German Americans — including books on German American genealogy — to be found on this Web page about German Americans and genealogy.

Best wishes in researching your roots!

This is one in a series of genealogy and family history research articles to help you find your family and ancestors, often for modest or no cost.

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