Who’s your Ur-mama?

In his book The Seven Daughters of Eve, scientist-author Bryan Sykes presents “the classification of all modern Europeans into seven groups, the mitochondrial haplogroups. Each haplogroup is defined by set of characteristic mutations on the mitochondrial genome, and can be traced along a person’s maternal line to a specific prehistoric woman” (Wikipedia, reference link above). The seven “clan mothers” mentioned by Sykes each correspond to a human mitochondrial haplogroup.

Ursula: Haplogroup U……………Xenia: Haplogroup X
Helena: Haplogroup H…………..Velda: Haplogroup V
Tara: Haplogroup T……………..Jasmine: Haplogroup J

And, my Ur-mother* is Katrine, corresponding to Haplogroup K, who hypothetically lived around 12,000 years ago in northern Italy, near the Austrian border. (*The prefix ‘Ur-‘ is “a combining form meaning ‘earliest, original,’ used in words denoting the primal stage of a historical or cultural entity or phenomenon” according to Dictionary.reference.com.

hapKmap

How do I know this? Let me explain …

I have long been interested in the genealogy of my family. Upon a recommendation, I read Sykes’s book and found his science and imaginative hypotheses fascinating. I believe there was reference in his book to places where a person’s DNA could be analyzed in order to see which ur-mother could be assigned to him or her, assuming that the person was of consistent European ancestry on his or her mother’s matrilineal side.

I decided to pay for a DNA analysis from Family Tree DNA, based in Houston, Texas, founded in March of 2000. “It is the world leader and foremost organization in the field of Genetic Genealogy that has been constantly developing the science that enables thousands of genealogists around the world to advance their families’ research. With over 100,000 DNA records, it has the largest YDNA and mtDNA databases in the world, and processes a wide array of genealogy related tests. It also provides the DNA testing for the National Geographic’s Genographic Project.” (Source).

Helen Diakakis, my maternal grandmother, whose ur-mother came from Northern Italy, although she herself was born in Astros, The Peloponnesus, Greece

Helen Diakakis, my maternal grandmother, whose ur-mother came from Northern Italy, although she herself was born in Astros, The Peloponnesus, Greece

I received from Houston a kit to capture some of my tissue from which my DNA could be extracted. This tissue is the epithelial lining of my cheeks. I used the two swabs provided in the kit (a precautionary redundancy) to scrape the inside of my cheeks, then inserted them into two tubes containing some preserving liquid. I mailed them back in the special envelope Family Tree DNA provided, along with the paperwork. In due course I received results that were specific for my mother’s side (mtDNA) and my father’s patrilineal side (Y-DNA). There is no way to determine one’s “Ur-father” for reasons which are beyond the scope of this blog, but are detailed in some of the links underlying the text.

On my py Patrilineal side, great-grandfather, Konstantinos Alexander Pavellas, a Greek Orthodox priest, his wife Theofilia and my grandfather Alexander

On my py Patrilineal side, great-grandfather, Konstantinos Alexander Pavellas, a Greek Orthodox priest, his wife Theofilia and my grandfather Alexander

Over several years, and as the science and technology advanced, I paid for additional tests on the same tissue I submitted, which was held in storage, and now have the all the information currently available for my matrilineal and patrilineal ancestors. On my father’s side, I am descended from the Y-DNA haplogroup J2, originating probably in Anatolia 5,000-12,000 years ago. My paternal line is further identified as a subclade of haplogroup J2, namely J2e (m12+), or J2b or J2e1, depending on the system of nomenclature.

Now that I know all this, and more not presented here, about my matrilineal and patrilineal ancestors, what about all the other hundreds of ancestors not in these lines, for instance: the ancestors of my mother’s father and the ancestors of my father’s mother? When I started mentally calculating the number of all the ancestors I needed to have in order to be me (it would be more than all the people currently on Earth), my brain locked up. I put the problem to my son Alexander J. Pavellas, a mathematics guru. Here is part of his response:

Alexander J. Pavellas, math tutor at U.C. Santa Barbara, with his dad, quite a few years ago.

Alexander J. Pavellas, math tutor at U.C. Santa Barbara, with his dad, quite a few years ago.

“Your calculation assumes that your/our lineage is a simple binary tree. What it neglects is the possible common ancestry of a given mother and father. When populations were small, inbreeding occurred frequently simply because there was not a genetically diverse population around (i.e. “My sister is the only girl in town.”) This has the effect of “pruning the family tree.” In reality, if you were to draw a graph representing your ancestry dating back in time, you would not see a continuously branching tree with more and more ancestors per generation, but lots of crisscrossing lines with lineages constantly splitting and merging. I would guess that the number of ancestors per generation would increase geometrically until it hit some critical value, at which point the total number of ancestors in a particular generation would remain relatively constant, possibly oscillating depending on more global variables such as the size of local populations, wars, plagues and whatever else might affect it.”

In the end, for me, this is all interesting but not vital to know. For some, there are questions to answer such as determining true paternal parentage, whether one has Native American or Family Cohen (Jewish) DNA and to what degree, and many others, such as relationships among persons of the same surname. Testing of other persons presumably or questionably related to oneself is necessary for some of these determinations.

Map of Human Migration. Please click on the image to see more detail (the numbers indicate thousands of year ago)

As of April 13, 2008, Family Tree DNA achieved a data base of 188,022 records, the largest DNA databases in the field of Genetic Genealogy, including: 4,747 surname projects, 74,997 unique surnames, 123,062 Y-DNA records and 64,960 mtDNA records in the database. I have volunteered to be in several study projects, one relating to my Greek DNA heritage on my paternal side. I have also given my DNA information to GenBank of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information; and to the Genographic Project of the National Geographic magazine.

I started out on this quest to satisfy my curiosity and ended up as an active participant in the quest for more and better knowledge about the human condition.

And, now, I also know who my Ur-mama is: Katrine. Nice name.

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About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Alexander J. Pavellas, Alexander K. Pavellas, Artemis (Pagonis) Pavellas, Helen (Diakakis) Pagonis, Human Genome, Konstantin Pavellas, Pavellas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Who’s your Ur-mama?

  1. Pingback: What is it to be “Caucasian,” and… « The Pavellas Perspective

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