Y DNA (like MTDNA) has an amazing power to tell us who we’re most closely related to and sometimes where they live and how they got there. We can even guess at the spans of time between Y testers. I spend a lot of time speculating about what all that information means and openly wondering about various migrations that might fit the bill for different groups of Y DNA cousins.
Today, I’ve got a grain of salt to add to my years of speculation and it comes from a recent conversation here and a recent dinner with an Elmer Y DNA relative here in Michigan. It’s some food for thought when we’re speculating about migrations deeper in time.
The more we learn the less we know
We don’t know, what we don’t know. You can see from my posts over the years that following the evidence means changing my ideas and thoughts. Since we don’t know what we’ll know next year that we don’t know now, it’s hard to be concrete about anything.
This time, I’ve got something a little more solid to talk about and that is that proximity, surnames and Y DNA do not equal a very close relationship or a similar or singular migration path, migration event or even a common culture.
I’m going to start at the Y micro level, with my own Y family. Last week I was having dinner with a Y relative who lives here in Michigan, an hour away from me. At one level of Y testing it would be normal to speculate that we are most closely related and that our relationship is also marked by a similar and singular migration path. We’re both Y DNA Elmers, on the same branch of the Y tree and in the same state and really less than an hour’s drive from each other so it would be reasonable to conclude that we go together.
It’s only recent and better Y DNA testing, and a pretty well documented family tree, that shows that we don’t have a common ancestor in the last 350 years and that we’re both most closely related to two separate families in New York state and that we both ended up in the same general area in Michigan (in my case really recently).
With more evidence, we know that our common ancestor was born in 1654 and that although both families passed through New York state, mine went to Illinois with my closest living Y relatives moving on to Missouri. His family came straight over and settled in southern Michigan in the 1830’s and pretty much stayed there. Mine moved to Northern Michigan from Illinois in the 1920’s and then from Northern Michigan to Southern Michigan in my lifetime.
His family has almost 200 years in the area, I have about 30 years.
You could say, without fibbing, that the Elmers generally took part in the westward expansion of the colonies and later the U.S. The devil is in the details though, so our speculations could be found to be way off base as more evidence comes in. Assigning cultures with the expansion would be an error.
Lumping the cultures of our two family branches together as generally “American” or even “Midwestern” would be okay, but accurately assigning the cultures of the individual migrations to Michigan would reveal that one was travelling in wagons before the civil war and the other migration took place in the culture of the roaring 20’s and the age of the automobile.
Those are cultural differences we can compare in the last couple of hundred years, now imagine we’re looking at people separated by 1000 years.
I think as we learn more about the complexities and the timing of Y DNA mutations, gather ancient DNA for testing and get more people to test more deeply, we’ll be shocked at the webs and waves of migrations our ancestors and Y cousins took part in.
When I’m speculating, which I love to do, the caveat is that people haven’t necessarily just sat still. When we’re talking about maybe a 900 to 1000 year gap we have with the Knowltons and a 1300 year gap with the Lunsfords that is a lot of time for people to move in and out of locations and also to take part in different times and cultures. I can say that it’s likely all three families ended up in southeast England, but it’s much harder to say that they all arrived together.
Is it possible that the proto-Knowltons arrived in England before the proto-Elmers? That they may have floated over with the Normans while the proto-Elmers came later in the 1300s with other Flemish immigrants? The two may have been related on the continent and just incidentally ended up in a similar location in England. Absolutely. It’s also possible that the Lunsfords, Knowltons and Elmers stem from a single man who floated over with the “danes” around 800AD. Who could say for sure?
These examples would be different cultures that would see each other as foreign. A proto-Lunsford Dane that became English would see the Norman proto-Knowltons as invaders. They wouldn’t know they had a common Y ancestor because each would be representing his local culture. Their common Y DNA wouldn’t keep them from slaughtering each other. They wouldn’t necessarily even speak the same language separated by just a few hundred years.
This last thought is more for me than for anybody, because I’m prone to over generalization like everybody else.
Y DNA is pretty solid. It’s a genetic anchor to our past. It’s easy to see the unbroken line of men back through the ages as a single entity born out in ourselves, but it’s also important to note that these men going back in this single line were of many different and often opposed cultures.
I often think of The 13th Warrior when I think of my family; “Lo there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning”. Really though, those vikings wouldn’t have recognized their people back to the beginning and would have had little in common with them.
For Y DNA it would be more like looking at the past lives of Avatar the Last Airbender. The people in our past come from many different cultures and speak many different languages and we should feel free to identify with and learn more about any and all of them.