A few weeks before my mother died, she asked me if I could find out whether her oldest sister had been conceived out of wedlock. If the sister was illegitimate, it would explain why her parents had been unnaturally reticent about their past. It might also account for their rather Calvinist sense of morality, atoning for past sins.
My mother must have known about it for years, but suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, as if she realised that her time was drawing to an end. Later that day, I went online and discovered how easy it was to track people down, even when their surname was Smith.
Within less than an hour, I was able to confirm that my maternal grandparents had indeed given in to the heat of the moment (actually, it must have been quite a long moment, as those whalebone corsets are a devil to get off). They tried to cover their tracks with a snap wedding, but my great-aunt ruined it all by arriving a month early. It caused a scandal within the family.
I rang my mother and told her that it was all true. I think she was secretly delighted that her family life echoed the plot of one of her beloved romance novels.
After looking up various birth, death and marriage certificates on a family history website, I started being bombarded with adverts for ancestry DNA tests. At first I ignored them, as it seemed a rather frivolous way of spending £100. Then a special offer arrived and like my grandparents, I succumbed to temptation.
I’d always been a little sceptical about the value of ancestry DNA tests, but the technology has improved and I thought it would be fun to see if the results bore any relation to the person I believed I was.
All I knew about my family was that we were all English on both sides, right down to the last third cousin, twice removed. But the phrase ‘pure English’ is, of course, an oxymoron. The latest research suggests that it means very different things, depending on what part of the country you’re in.
The traditional narratives may have claimed that the English were Germanic invaders, who had pushed the native Britons to the western fringes of Britain. However, recent findings point to a more complex picture of continuity and assimilation. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, added to the gene pool, but hadn’t radically changed it.
I expected to be largely descended from the forgotten prehistoric peoples who came here after the ice age, with some Anglo-Saxon and a little Viking. I secretly hoped for something a little more exotic – perhaps even some Neanderthal – but was resigned to being Mr Average.
The results came as something of a surprise:
It was a shock to discover that I was only 21% British (and where did the 11% Irish come from?). However, the biggest bombshell was learning that I was two-thirds continental European. In addition, I was also more Western European than the average Western European. How did that happen?
I dug deeper and learned that my European ancestors were largely from Holland and northern Germany, with a soupçon of Scandinavian and Mediterranean. It would seem that the English were the 5th century’s equivalent of EU migrants.
Further back, I am also descended from a 5,000 years old gentleman in Stuttgart, whose bones were found in a cave. I went through Stuttgart once on a sleeper train, but didn’t have any strange dreams about killing wolves.
As for the smigdeon of Irish, apparenly it could be Scottish, but I think I’ll be like those blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who identify as Native American and invent a new Hibernian identity for myself. Come St Patrick’s Day, I’ll be cracking open the Guinness and singing Danny Boy with the rest of them.
Ancestry DNA tests are just a bit of fun, but there is a serious aspect to it too. I can imagine how the Nazis would have eagerly embraced this technology as a tool to measure racial purity, only to discover, to their horror, that we are all descended from immigrants.
We are ‘the other’. Mr Trump take note.
In the meantime, I shall be deporting myself back to Europe as soon as a vacancy arises for a hunter-gatherer. If you’re aware of any caves going free in the Stuttgart area, please let me know.