I was adopted as a baby. My adoptive parents made no secret of that fact but never had any information they could share about my ancestry. I often wondered what my ancestors had experienced and where they originated. It made me sad that I would likely never know. It was not something I talked about and if the topic came up I was very philosophical about it all.
At school my favourite subject was history and I read obsessively about the past at home. In primary school we did family trees. It made me feel funny. I placed my parents, and their parents, my brother and sister on the teacher’s sheet but it was just awkward inside. I imagine many adoptees feel this way. A concept, discovered in Ancient History, when studying Marius’ consulship, of the ‘novus homo’ or ‘new man’, if your Latin is rusty, really appealed. I liked the idea of being the first of my line. It certainly was a practical solution to not knowing anything about my biological parents or their origins, albeit a tad romantic.
I read William Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Ruined Cottage’, as a teenager and its melancholy truth appealed on many levels. The tale told by the old man, who conveys the story of Margaret and her travails to the poet as he looks on the crumbling ruin, illuminating what was unknown and soon to be unknowable, has always been remembered when many other poems have faded from mind. The family historian, peering into the fog of the past, in an attempt to understand what has happened, would often like such guidance; if only someone knew and could speak.
I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left.
William Wordsworth, from ‘The Ruined Cottage’
With the unravelling of the human genome it seemed that what was previously hidden from view has been miraculously revealed. Our DNA held both personal and our collective human history. There was a ‘memorial’. A really ancient one that stretched back to Africa and the trail could now be traced.
A friend who is also interested in ‘citizen science’ told me about how he had ‘’taken a swab as part of National Geographic’s DNA experiment’’ and I decided this would be interesting. I knew very little about the science of the process and even less about how genealogists were using this data for research. The Genographic Project enables participants to learn about their ‘deep ancestry’. I discovered that my two reference groups were ‘Danish’ and ‘Tuscan’. I also discovered that my paternal haplogroup was I-M26 and the maternal one, U4. I did a great deal of reading and online research to try to understand this relatively new science.
Further research revealed that indeed, my biological ancestors had immigrated to the North Queensland cane fields from Denmark and Italy. Unbelievably, as I had loved living in Denmark just a few years ago and had no inkling of this, my Danish ancestry stretched back to the 14th century – with documentation. I really had felt at home in Viborg.
Strangely enough, other places, in other countries that had resounded with me when I travelled or lived there, were overgrown with ancestral trails. There were all kinds of strange coincidences. Who’d have guessed that a boy named ‘Darcy’ by his adoptive parents would discover that his biological third cousin, eight times removed, was Jane Austen?
My own partner, her parents and my adoptive family are all now participating – as citizen scientists – in the Genographic Project and some amazing discoveries have been made. What fascinates is that the paper trail, increasingly digitised and online, complements the DNA data. It confirms suspicions and opens new lines of inquiry. Our children were flabbergasted to discover they share common ancestors with the Sami people of Finland. It took a great deal of traditional research to see how that was indeed possible after being presented with the analysis from National Geographic. A birth certificate was discovered that had a previously unknown Chinese-Australian ancestor, in our otherwise very European family, with the surname of Jipp. It all started to make sense.
Research into my adoptive family’s tree has proven equally rewarding. My father’s earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia, as a convict in 1826, lived approximately 10 kilometres from my current residence. My mum’s tree stretches back to 16th century Yorkshire and I suspect, when we get her DNA analysis back, that she may have some ‘Viking’ in her too.
We are all connected and understanding how is within grasp. Our deep ancestry can now be revealed with a simple cheek swab and Dr Spencer Wells, the Director of the Genographic Project, is indeed correct to say that “the greatest history book ever written is the one hidden in our DNA”. The pleasure of traditional genealogical research makes for wonderfully insightful reading and is to be treasured too.
Featured image: This article was originally published in Family Tree (December, 2014)