Wot No German DNA?

Last week I got my DNA results back from Ancestry.com. I’ve been doing document-based genealogy for 30+ years but I’m unfashionably late to the party with DNA testing. Unlike most of my American friends, whose DNA would be a colourful and exciting melting pot, I was fully expecting mine to be primarily English and quite boring.  However, I was hoping to see some evidence of my German ancestry. 

My paternal grandmother Delia Munday Raby was born ‘out of wedlock’ between the two wars, and all she knew of her father – Walter Emmanuel Raby – was that he lived in Ontario, Canada and was German. A decade ago, we were able to trace his family. We found that Walter and his parents were actually born in Ontario, and his father Charles Raby’s parents were born in England. However, Walter’s mother Mary Ann Bonn was born to German immigrants Herman & Julian Bonn. The English Rabys shared a house with the Bonns, so Walter’s parents grew up together(!) in a German household in one of the most German areas of Ontario. No doubt Walter, a 2nd generation Canadian, still had a strong German identity. 

Herman had come to Ontario in the 1850s as a child with his parents Herman and Anna Bonn, who had a whopping 17 children! Thanks to other descendants’ research I have the details of many lines in several German regions going back to the 1600s. I’ve been able to connect with a historian from one village in Hesse, called Obergleen, where my 5x great grandfather signed an important document in support of an imprisoned hero of the German revolution. Obergleeners are nicknamed ‘dumpling bags’, which my husband says ‘explains a lot’.

Although my granny never knew her father (and never wanted to), I’m proud of my links to Ontario and Germany, and thought that my Germanic roots would show up in my ethnicity results. But in fact, I have ZERO connection to Germanic regions! Instead, I have 95% England, Wales & Northern Europe, and 5% Norway & Iceland. So why is there no German DNA?

Could it be that Walter wasn’t actually my granny’s father? No – I have two strong cousin matches with Walter’s family that make it highly likely he was.

But interestingly, one of those cousins (Walter’s 1st cousin and a grandchild of Mary Ann Bonn) doesn’t have any German DNA in her ethnicity report either! So could it be that Mary Ann Bonn wasn’t in fact a biological child of Hermann & Mary Ann? It’s possible, but another explanation is simply that not enough distinctly German DNA has been passed down to her descendants.

Firstly, German DNA is not that different from English DNA! What we think of as national identities are really quite recent inventions; Germany has only been a unified country since 1848. In fact, the populations of modern England and Germany are very much an ‘ad-mixture’ of numerous tribes, some of whom were ‘Germanic’, some Scandinavian, Celtic, and so on. MyHeritage has a blog post on this topic. Nevertheless, since my German ancestors came from all over today’s Germany, it surprises me that none of them passed on any DNA to me that Ancestry has categorised as being from ‘Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium & Luxembourg’.

Secondly, the absence of German DNA could be explained by the random reality of inheritance. Mary Ann Bonn, my 2x great grandmother is my closest full ‘German’ ancestor (born in Ontario to two German-born parents). She is one of my 16 2x great grandparents, so if we received the same sized portion of DNA from each direct ancestor in one generation, I would have about 6.25% from Mary Ann. However, DNA inheritance does not actually work this way, and it’s actually possible to inherit more or less than the average from each ancestor. Ancestry explains this in ‘Unexpected Ethnicity Results‘ (they also point out that ‘DNA of neighboring regions often looks very similar’ and acknowledge that ‘ethnicity estimation is still a work in progress.’ It’s not unusual to not see ethnicity from 4 generations ago. Still, it’s odd that Mary Ann’s granddaughter didn’t have any German ethnicity either.

Does the lack of German ethnicity in my DNA results mean I didn’t inherit any DNA at all from Mary Ann or her forebears? According to one geneticist, the likelihood that we inherit some DNA from even a 3x great grandparent is ‘close to 100%’, so I probably do have some of Mary Ann’s DNA. Maybe with more markers tested (or my whole genome!) some German DNA would be revealed, though it may simply be too fragmented.

So, probably some DNA from Mary Ann Bonn has come to me. However, I simply can’t prove that Mary Ann was the biological daughter of Herman and Julian Bonn and that she had German ancestors.

So, should I relinquish my (already quite over-stated) claim to be ‘a bit German’?! No, I think I’ll hang on to that interesting story for now! At the very least, I feel I am an honorary Dumpling Bag!


Featured Image: My Ethnicity Estimate – other regions tested – from ancestry.co.uk

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