Finding My Roots Through DNA

By Jeffrey the Barak

How my knowledge of my ancestry suddenly jumped from the 19th Century to tens of thousands of years ago.
Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.28.44 AMA couple of months ago a friend told me she had used an online DNA testing service, 23andMe, to research her ancestry. The ancestral history of her DNA revealed some unknown ancient history regarding where she came from. Intrigued, I signed up the very same day.

In my own case, nothing is known about my ancestors before my four grandparents. I know that my paternal grandparents were European Jews who lived in a country called Bessarabia in the old Ottoman Empire, which is now part of Moldavia.

I know that my maternal grandfather was a European Jew from the area of Kiev, today’s Ukraine, and that my maternal grandmother was born in Wales to parents who also came from my grandfather’s immediate area near Kiev.

And so my four grandparents were essentially European Jews who were not inclined to, or able to, look into where they might have come from before. It was assumed, in the religion, that they were simply part of the Jewish diaspora and somehow descended from one of the so-called twelve tribes of Israel.

But now we have DNA. While the religion we see in today’s world is barely three and a half thousand years old, we as humans go back much further, and our DNA gives us direct links to people who were leaving traces of themselves fifty-thousand years ago. By looking at the DNA of millions of subjects we can place ourselves into groups. Each group has common ancestry, each dating back to one single individual human who had a genetic mutation, and that single mutation survived to the the present day via reproduction.

And so just from the preliminary results I could immediately see that my father’s DNA has origins in Europe, no surprise, and my mother’s has origins in Sub-Saharan Africa. Initially that African connection was quite a surprise but apparently some people made it to Eastern Europe from Africa between ten and twenty thousand years ago and bred into the population there.

My Maternal line, my DNA from Mandy Barak.

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.26.16 AM23andMe says,

“Although it is extremely rare in Europe, haplogroup L2a has been found among a small number of people there, mostly in the eastern part of the continent. It is most common among Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, but has also been found among Romanian, French, German and Russian Jews and non-Jewish Slavs in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The distribution of L2a in Europe makes it very difficult to determine exactly how and when the haplogroup first appeared on the continent; but genetic analyses indicate that a migration from Africa during the Ice Age, …more than 10,000 years ago….”

And so my mother’s African ancestors may have left Africa ten or more thousand years ago and joined the European population that many thousands of years later, in the middle-ages, adopted the incoming Jewish religion and subsequently became part of the Jews of Europe.

In more detail, my maternal group, L2a1l2 is a subgroup of L2a, which was the Sub-Saharan Africans. They were from Central Africa! L2a, which dates back about 55,000 years, is present in 20% or more of both Africans and African Americans. At the peak of the Last Ice Age twenty-thousand years ago, when the Sahara Desert became entirely uninhabitable and began expanding to the south, people bearing Haplogroup L2a began journeying in two directions, east toward the cooler climate of the eastern highlands, and west towards the Atlantic coast. This latter group remains in West Africa and is the predominant ancestry for African-Americans.

And then at some point between ten and twenty thousand years ago my maternal ancestors migrated, most likely from Africa’s eastern highlands, to Europe. Europe at the time was very sparsely populated, and barely civilized. It was still the stone age and thousands of years before metal tools heralded in the bronze age. And there were people already living there. The Neanderthals of the region probably went extinct thirty-thousand years before today, but there had been some interbreeding and so traces of Neanderthal DNA abounded in the region ten to twenty thousand years ago when my L2 ancestors arrived from Africa.

What this tells me is that my maternal ancestors did not migrate to Europe in the middle ages as part of the Jewish diaspora. They were already there, in Europe, descended long ago from Africans. They were there for many thousands of years before any of today’s religions ever arose in the world. Which means that at some point in the middle ages, just a few hundred years ago, they adopted Judaism for the first time, when they were already Europeans.

My Paternal line, my DNA from Phil Barak

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.27.23 AMMy Paternal line is J2, a sub-group of J and is at least eighteen thousand years old. This group originated in Southern Europe, the Near East (Anatolia) the Caucases and Northern Africa. Example populations include Lebanese, Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. My grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews and they most probably descended from ancestral J2 Jews who arrived in Europe as migrating Jews, less than two thousand years ago.

23andMe says,

“Several branches of haplogroup J2 spread with the Jewish diaspora from the Middle East into Europe, where the population expanded dramatically from the Middle Ages onward. Haplogroup J2 now reaches levels of about 20 percent among the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe, and their descendants in other parts of the world.”

So is Judaism an ethnicity or a religion? It is a religion, because our ancestors were exactly who they were, ethnically, for thousands of years before the modern concepts of God and religion ever arose. DNA and our Haplogroups are the big picture and it is a very much larger and older picture than the history of religions. So for me, an atheist, my Jewish heritage is not so relevant, because I can now look at my heritage dating back many thousands of years. As I have explained, when I look back far enough, I am the same haplogroup L2 as today’s African-Americans!

Despite my paternal haplogroup being entirely part of the Ashenazi Jews, it can still be traced back fifty-thousand years to Africa. The difference is my father’s line stopped and settled in Israel and the surrounding area,  whereas my mother’s line kept on walking towards the snow and ice of stone age Europe.

It may not be possible to pinpoint my roots to a specific place in Africa because not enough Africans have had their DNA analyzed yet. And I have no idea yet exctly where my paternal ancestors came from before the first J2 mutation arose, which was perhaps as recently as eighteen or nineteen thousand years ago, but I do know that they too were in Africa about fifty-thousand years ago.

However, suddenly jumping from knowing about four nineteenth century Jewish grandparents to knowing about direct family ancestors from about twenty thousand years ago is worth the price of admission!

My Neanderthal percentage

And then there is the Neanderthal factor. The average European is 2.7% Neanderthal. I am 2.8%. Almost everyone has a little bit, even in Nigeria where the percentage is lowest, at 0.3%. At some point before the Neanderthals became extinct around thirty-thousand years ago, there was some interbreeding with homo sapiens, and we all preserve a little bit of this lost sub-species within us.

Ancestry composition

Despite my maternal line being originally from Africa, this trait only remains as a haplogroup, not as any form of physical attribute. In my ancestral composition, the results seem to contradict the haplogroup L2. I am 99.1% European, consisting of 95.6% Ashkenazi and some small fractions of Southern European and Eastern European. I also have 0.6% Middle Eastern and a surprising 0.2% South Asian.

The Sub-Saharan African that my L2a1l2 haplogroup brings to the table shows as 0% in my ancestry composition. So this raises a question, how can 23andMe tell me that my mother’s line is from Africa, and also tell me that I am 95.5% Ashkenazi? Simple. It is time and adaptation. During the approximately ten to twenty-thousand years since my mother’s ancestors started to walk from Africa to Eastern Europe, they changed, little by little, with every generation, and adapted to their surroundings. Their skin tone and features changed in response to the environment. In physical human evolution, ten to twenty thousand years is plenty of time for people to dramatically change their appearances. In fact, between forty-five and sixty thousand years ago, all humans on the planet were still in Africa, and look at today’s diversity.

Homo Sapiens reached Europe around 43,000 years ago, eventually replacing the pre-existing Neanderthal population by 24,000 years ago. So DNA has shown me that my mother’s ancestors got to Europe a very long time before my father’s J2 haplogroup arrived. The J2 group got there less than two-thousand years ago. The Jewish Diaspora was a middle ages phenomenon, and so the blossoming of the European Jewish population only really expanded to the peak levels of 1850 in the last four-hundred years. During this time people who might have already been in Europe sometimes became part of the Jewish population. It is entirely possible that on my mother’s side, Judaism, the religion, did not appear until as late as the 1700’s. But this was so common that despite having the maternal haplogroup of Africans, I am still considered to be almost completely Ashkenazi.

No humans came magically out of nowhere, and before we were L2, J2 etc, before mutations in certain individuals survived across generations to make up todays surviving haplogroups, we were still here, surviving or not, playing in the great game of natural selection. Go back far enough and all of today’s groups might be from the same original small group of proto-homo-sapiens.

23andMe says,  

“The ancestry of every human alive today begins in eastern Africa. There, nearly 200,000 years ago, our species evolved. For the next 150,000 years or so, these early humans would remain within the confines of Africa, gradually separating into distinct populations. Then, sometime between 45 and 60,000 years ago, one of these populations made the giant leap out of Africa. They and their descendants expanded both eastward and northward, even making it to Australia within a few thousand years. Others ventured deep into the heart of Central and East Asia, eventually getting all the way into the Americas. Meanwhile, a few turned west after leaving Africa, eventually heading into the heart of Europe. The descendants of these first travelers would give rise to every human alive today.

We consider the World to encompass all continents except Antarctica. Our database reflects the genetic diversity of the world prior to the era of intercontinental travel that began roughly 500 years ago.”

This week I have suddenly traced my roots back from less than two hundred years ago to twenty or thirty thousand years ago. Remember that just fifty thousand years ago, humans had not left Africa. And two-hundred thousand years ago we were not yet humans. As more people in the world get their DNA analyzed and share their results, I might be able to look much further back in time and still see my direct ancestors.


  1. Wow! Thanks for that Jeffrey. As I have the same maternal line as you. Have expanded the line.almost back to Africa??? Although I was born in England, all my grandchildren were born in here in Israel.

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