A few years ago I decided to take an ancestry DNA test. Today there are many companies that do this type of test for less than one-hundred dollars. I decided to do my test through 23andMe.
I went online purchased the test and in less than a week they sent me a kit. I read through the instructions, spit into a small cylinder plastic tube, and mailed my DNA sample back to the company. I then waited anxiously for my results.
As I waited, I realized that I suffered from progonoplexia. Yes, pro-go-no-plek-sia or an obsession of all things to do with my ancient Greek ancestors. Not to be confused of course with archaiolatria (ar-chai-o-la-tria), which is an admiration of the ancient world.
If you suffer from progonoplexia, as I do, no need to worry… at least not too much. There are no major physical or mental ailments, just a few minor symptoms, like 1) An obsession with your Greek heritage, and 2) A fixation on whether you are 100% Greek.
Progonoplexia was first coined by Harvard anthropologists Michael Hertzfeld to help explain the modern Greek people’s obsession with their ancient Greek ancestors. Remember Nia Vardalos’ sequel to her famous movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” Her father Gus Portakalis suffered from progonoplexia. He wanted to do an ancestry DNA test to prove to the world that he was a direct descendant of Alexander the Great.
When I finally received my results via email a month later I was pretty nervous. Would my results show that I was not Greek? That my blood lines had traces of Slavic, Turkish, and Albanian ancestry?
I cautiously clicked to open my results and found out, yes, I was Greek, at least for the most part. I did have some Italian, a small amount of Western and Eastern European ancestry, and a tiny bit Middle Eastern. But I was mostly Greek or Balkan.
I was surprised how detailed my results were. It explained both my paternal and maternal ancestral lines and some famous people who also shared these lines. There was a page with a list of DNA relatives and how closely related I was too them. There was even a map showing where most of my relatives came from, and how much Neanderthal DNA I had.
Recently, Dr. Iosif Lazaridis and his research team from Harvard and the Max Plank Institute analyzed the DNA from the remains of several ancient Minoans and ancient Myceneans. They found that these original inhabitants of Greece had originally settled into Greece from Anatolia thousands of years before to the Bronze Age. Lazaridis also noted that that modern Greek people were closely related to these early Greeks.
Lazaridis’ study was more complicated than that though. Greeks as most Southern Europeans are mostly descendant from early farmers. About 10,000 years ago these farmers came to Europe from Anatolia and the Middle East, bringing with them their farming technology.
They eventually mixed in with the local hunter gather population that had been in Europe some 40,000 years before these new arrivals. There were certainly other migrations into Greece from parts of present-day Ukraine, Central Asia and Siberia. But the ancient Greeks were a blend of peoples who settled into the Greek peninsula from other places, bringing with them not only their DNA, but also their ideas and culture.
This ultimately gave rise to the great civilization that we know today as ancient Greece. If you ask any biologist today they will tell you that the more diverse your DNA, the better.
But what else can these DNA tests reveal? Remember the page of “DNA Relatives?” These are people that are related to you. Close relatives appear on the first couple of pages, while distant relatives latter.
Their on my first page I found my brother, some cousins nieces and nephews who had also taken the test. I went through most my DNA relatives looking for names that I knew. Most I did not. But on my last pages I saw my wife’s name, who had also taken the test the same time I did. Yes, my wife and I were distant cousins. We shared a grandparent sometime between 200-300 years ago. Luckily, it was nothing incestuous since it was so long ago.
A few weeks later I opened my “Relatives Page” again to see if any new relatives had popped up. On my first page I saw the usual suspects. My brother, some cousins and nephews. About five names down I saw a name I did not recognize — a Kelly Ramsey that was listed as a second cousin. My immediate reaction was “Who the f*** is Kelly Ramsey?” Did one of my close relatives disguise themselves with the alias of Kelly Ramsey? I had to contact this Kelly Ramsey and find out who she really was.
I wrote the following to her:
Dear Kelly, we share 16 segments. This is a close relative. I am wondering if you have relatives in Greece, if so, what areas of Greece. Also, I am interested in knowing those Greek surnames. Ted.
Within a few hours Kelly responded with the following:
Hello Ted, Yes, it seems that we are closely related. I wish I could tell you about my relatives in Greece. Unfortunately, I know nothing about my father or his heritage. I do know that there are no Greeks on my mother’s side of the family. I have found through 23andMe that I have quite a few Greek relatives. It seems that I may have found a link to my father. Maybe you can tell me about your family, where they are from in Greece and if some of them ended up in California (I was born in Los Angeles in 1964). I would appreciate any info that you are willing to share. Thank You, Kelley
My follow up response:
Dear Kelly, Thanks for connecting. If the match is correct we are very closely related and in fact 2nd cousins. It means we share a great-grandparent which is not that far off. My other close relatives have done the test and the matches have been precise…. Both my father and mother are from the same town in Greece. Quite frankly, when you showed up I was surprised I did not know who you were. I know most of my close relatives….
Ted… There is indeed a mystery surrounding my father, and a somewhat interesting story. When I was 40 years old, I discovered (accidently) that my blood type & my fathers were incompatible. My father & I decided to get a DNA test and the results showed that he ( the man who raised me) was not by biological father. My mother insisted that this was impossible, and refused to share any information ( they were divorced by then). It created such a rift between us that we have not spoken in many years. The good news is that my father doesn’t mind that we are not biologically related and our relationship is a good one . My parents married because my mother became pregnant with me when they were both quite young. My aunts have rallied around trying to solve the mystery, but with no luck. My mother grew up on the westside of Los Angeles, she was born in 1945 and became pregnant with me in 1963. I was born in 1964 in Los Angeles. My father was apparently part Greek…..I know absolutely nothing about my biological father. Were your great grandparents Greek? Thank you so much for your willingness to help me find out about my family. I left California a few years ago, and now reside in Vermont. I hope all is well in Chicago. Thanks again for your kindness. Kelley
My personal thoughts after reading this:
WHAT DID I GET MYSELF INTO?!
The mystery was eventually solved. Kelly was in fact a cousin. Her father was my father’s first cousin. He did not know that he had another daughter, but was very happy to learn that he did and welcomed Kelly to the family.
Kelly’s situation is not unusual. DNA tests are connecting people to families they did not know, even Greek children who were sent for adoption to the United States almost 70 years ago.
Professor Gonda Van Steen, a Koraes Professor and Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies Kings College London, is helping connect these families today.
Van Steen says the following:
“A larger number of the approximately 3,200 Greek-to-American adoptees, who were adopted out to the United States between 1950 and 1962, have very little paperwork, and DNA-testing is another tool they have been utilizing with vigor. These adoptees, typically in their sixties, are very hopeful that more Greeks from Greece will take the tests, so that more native Greek material will be added to the international databases.”
The history of these mass Greek-to-American adoptions is the subject of Van Steen’s forthcoming book, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo?
While ancestry DNA tests have revealed what people expected, they have also provided some surprises. So, if you are considering doing an ancestry DNA test, just remember while you may not be surprised what you find, you may be surprised who you find.
About the Author
Dr. Theodore Zervas is a distinguished visiting professor of comparative and international education at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
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