My 23andMe data revealed a number of potentially worrying results: compared to what I was expecting, I turned out to be a hotbed of mild genetic disease. I visited my GP to discuss the results with him; he spent a short while staring at the reports, and then referred me to a clinical geneticist. I haven’t had the appointment at the time of writing this, so I will give a full report of the experience after I’ve had time to digest it. I’m not going into details about all this now, because I didn’t really want to open this new chapter of the Genomes Unzipped book talking about my potential or actual diseases – so instead, I’m going to talk about something entirely unrelated to disease, and related to my family, and our suspected histories.
I have worked on Y chromosome sequencing pretty extensively in the past, and the first thing I checked when I received my 23andMe data was my Y haplogroup. The Y chromosome is passed down exclusively from father to son, and thus provides information about one “edge” of my family tree (my father, my father’s father, my father’s father’s father, and so on). My haplogroup is N1, which is a predominantly Asian haplogroup, and is very rare in the UK. This isn’t actually a very strange result, though; my father’s father is Latvian, and the N1 haplogroup is not rare in the Baltic regions. In fact, the subgroup, N1c1, is more common in parts of Eastern Europe than it is in Asia.
Initially, this seemed to play nicely into a part of our ancient family history. There is a folk history, relayed to me by my Dad and my uncle Johnny, that Jostins blood may contain traces of Mongolian. The justification for this is that in around 1260, just before the civil war caused the Mongol Empire to die back in Europe, the Empire extended all the way to the Baltic States. It was at this point, my fellow N1c1-bearers hypothesise, that Mongolian DNA entered the Jostins line.
Unfortunately on closer inspection this tale is not really supported by the DNA evidence. The famous Mongol Expansion haplogroup is actually C3, which is the modal haplogroup of Mongolians. In contrast, N1c1 has existed in Europe for thousands of years, and is far too old and too wide-spread to represent a recent expansion.
I’m going to use this opportunity to invent a new folk history, based on my genotype data, and a bit of research about Medieval Latvia, to explain how we came to carry the N1c1 haplogroup. Before 1211, the Eastern part was the Principality of Jersika, which was ruled over by a branch of the Rurik Dynasty. This large house of Princes were all (with the exception of one non-paternity event) descended from the 9th Century Varangian chieftain Rurik. From examining his living descendants, we can tell that Rurik was also haplogroup N1c1, and maybe it’s from Rurik, via the relatives of the Prices of Jersika, that my paternal line descends. This is not as implausible as it sounds. If you go back far enough, all historical figures have either no descendants in the region they lived in, or a very large number; 1300 years is about “far back enough” and we know that Rurik has a lot of descendants.
Or not, of course. Perhaps my paternal line came over from Finland to Latvia a few hundred years ago? Perhaps haplogroup N1c1 has been so common in the Baltic regions that tracing any sort of descent is hopeless? Perhaps the theory of descent from Medieval Baltic royalty is fanciful, and serves to glorify an otherwise uninteresting line of descent. But that’s why it is called a folk family history, and now seems like a good a time as any to start one.