The fluid nature of self-identity: DNA and Ethnicity 8

Self-identity, what culture or ethnicity do you identify with?  Your current culture?  Your immigrant ancestor’s culture?  Perhaps you identify with a culture buried deep in your DNA.


See this article as a great primer on the differences between - Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Heritage, and Culture.


Culturally, I’m an American.  I could even say that I’m a New Englander.  I grew up in an Italian family, but other than my surname and a few foods I like to cook, I don’t feel Italian.  I don’t strongly identify with that ethnic group.  My immigrant great-grandfather, Raffaele, may not have had strong feeling about being Italian either.  Italy as we know it only dates back to the 1860s.  Italian was his nationality, but culturally he probably associated more closely with the big cities he grew up near, Benevento and Naples.


Nations redraw their lines, form and dissolve over the course of decades.  If you had lived in central Europe over the past few hundred years, one day you might be French and the next day German, only to be French again in a week.


How long does it take us to lose our ethnicity?  If I took my family to Italy and we stayed there for three or four generations, would they think of themselves as Italian American Italians.   I doubt it.  Each generation would absorb the culture around them to a greater degree.  Given enough time, some descendants might think that it was just family mythology that they ever lived in the US.  We’ve always been here.


We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants.  That goes for the entire planet.


If I look at my wife’s family, they’ve been in America for over 350 years.  Their immigrant ancestor, Edward Clark, was ethnically English.  In turn, Edward’s immigrant ancestor was Norman and the immigrant ancestor before that was Danish.  I can keep going back, Iberia, Asia and Africa.  Which culture should they identify with?  Nationality is fleeting and uncertain.  Ethnicity is in your genes, embrace all the cultures of your ancestors.


I’ve had my DNA tested.  I know, roughly, when and how my ancestors got to the Italian peninsula.  About 40,000 years ago, there were no humans in Italy, or for that matter, Europe.  Over the intervening years, folks trickled in from every direction.  Let’s look at the current distribution of Italian y-DNA.


Haplogroup Percentage Culture
















Other 4.8% L, Q, T


This is a snapshot of modern Italy.  Without analyzing individual haplotypes from this dataset, it is difficult to determine which group arrived first.  More than likely each group had multiple waves of immigration across history.  I’ve created the map below for you to get a feel for the origin and flow of the major haplogroups.



As with most of Europe, R1b is the majority.  History tells us that some of the R1b can be attributed to Gallic DNA from Napoleon’s empire and Iberian DNA from Spain.  The next largest group is J2a, a Semitic group and possibly Jewish.  There is a long history of Jews in Italy as merchants, slaves and refugees.  The Alexandrian E1b DNA comes from years of Greek colonial settlements.  Next is G2a, my haplogroup.  Some researchers attribute the G2a DNA to early metalworking cultures like the Etruscans.  Some of the J1c is from Arab Berbers and the I1 is potentially Gothic DNA.


I can count Italian as part of my heritage, with roots in the mountains outside of Benevento.  That definition of me only has a 150-year history, the age of modern Italy.  3,000 years ago, my ancestors were living on the north side of the Alps in what is now Switzerland.  That doesn’t make me Swiss or does it?  7,000 years ago, my ancestors lived along the Danube River.  Now I’m Danubian.  Before that, we were in the Caucasus Mountains.  I sense a mountain theme going on here.  Perhaps I should call myself Caucasian?  My y-DNA haplogroup is G with origins in the Caucasus and my autosomal test indicates a close relation with the Adyghe or Circassian tribes of current day Georgia.  A rough translation of the word Adyghe means ‘mountaineer who lives between two seas’.


Should I self-identify with all the cultures of my ancestors?  Probably not.  Should I learn about and understand all those cultures?  Definitely.  We can pick and choose the best parts of our ancestral heritage and create our own unique ethnic identity.  I have a love for the mountains that didn’t come from any early family experience.  It’s in my DNA.


Mike Maglio is the author of Deep into DNA, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the use of DNA in genealogical research. Mike can be found blogging at OriginHunters.

© 2012 Mike Maglio


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8 thoughts on “The fluid nature of self-identity: DNA and Ethnicity

  • RoreyCathcart

    I’m going to say this even though I know my poor Mamaw Cassity will be spinning in her grave. I’m a Southerner first. I wasn’t always, fought it tooth and nail, but I’ve grown up now. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m asked “Where are you from”. I wasn’t born there, in the totality of my life I didn’t even live their 50% of it. But it is who I am.

    My immigrants are likely Irish. My name in Gaelic means Red King. It apparently suits me because my husband generally warns contractors of that fact before they start work. But I don’t feel Irish or claim any special kinship with them.

    My husband on the other hand, ‘feels’ his Scottish heritage. I’ve recently gotten his y-DNA back but haven’t had the time to analyze the information. Thanks for reminder that I need to move that project back up to the front burner.

  • Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith

    Very meaningful article, Mike. Thank you. And, especially, thank you for the reference on the definitions. These are important words to each of us and it is hard to get a handle on them, especially all in one place. A very positive blogger contribution. Thanks, again. I’m American – with a very diverse ancestral heritage – though most folks would just think of me as ‘an old white guy!’ 😉

    • Mike

      In my work I try to get folks to look beyond nationality. Nationality as a concept has been with us less than 1,000 years. A drop in the bucket at the genetic level.


  • Mariann Regan

    Thanks for your explanation of the origins & flow of the haplogroups, with the “mountain theme.” It’s eye-opening to be reminded what “Caucasian” fundamentally means. Our country is in flux now, and many are excited or worried that Caucasians / “white” will be soon in the minority for the first time. Well, hey, change is the only constant here. Taking the long view (as you do), it’s just another mountain. Informative post!

    • Mike

      I can literally say that I’m Caucasian, but I don’t because I have concerns that it will be taken the wrong way.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Michelle Goodrum

    Fascinating article. A few years ago, I visited the town where a large number of my ancestors had lived. I had never seen a picture of the area. As soon as I got my first glimpse of the valley in which they had lived, I immediately felt like I had been there before. If it’s in the DNA, I guess I had been there before!

  • Nick

    hi Mike
    great website, I was born in Italy and just had my DNA tested and belong to the T haplogroup, is that listed under “Other” in your table above? Apparently the T group is not very common so I plan to do some more research on it