What makes a Sicilian? Discovering our heritage through DNA tracing.
Ever since I was a boy, people always asked about my last name. Was it Italian? Was it Arabic? Was it Israeli? Was it Syrian? I always answered I was Italian because that is what I was told I was. I was confused about these questions and questioned my ancestor’s heritage beyond my grandparents. I knew by reading Sicilian history that many groups throughout history have invaded and controlled Sicily; Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Normans and Spaniards just to name of few. Maybe my name derived from one of those groups who settled in Sicily a very long time ago?
I knew that both my paternal and maternal grandparents came from Sicily. I knew I had a great-grandfather in Sicily because he sent me a gold child’s ring from Sicily when I was a very young boy. I still have that little ring after all these years.
You can read here Philip’s previous post about his experience in getting the Italian Citizenship. Click here!
A little over 10 years ago I became an Italian citizen. The process put me on a path to discovering many interesting family documents that I needed to obtain in order to complete the citizenship process. All of the names of my ancestors going back to the early 1600’s in Sicily were Italian last names. At least they sounded Italian. However, my last name only existed in one small town in the Provincia of Agrigento, in the small town of Lucca Sicula. Not only did I discover many distant ancestors with my name but I also found a street, using Google Maps, with my name on it. Via Cabibi. Who were these ancestors? Were they famous? What did they do to deserve having a street named after them?
After visiting the town about 5 years ago, I discovered my name appeared everywhere in the local cemetery. One of the townspeople actually directed me to the house where my ancestors lived. It was a simple cement faced home built into the side of one of the town’s churches. It was an amazing experience. Just walking through the streets where my grandfather and those before him walked was surreal. If you have never made a trip to your ancestor’s town in Sicily, I would highly recommend you put this experience on your bucket list. If time allows, take two weeks, drive the entire island and discover the ancient ruins, culture and foods of this fabulous island. If you would rather go on an escorted tour where you don’t have to worry about driving, encountering language issues, booking hotels, etc. then there are companies such as Tauck Tours that offer a wonderful fully escorted tour around Sicily.
It wasn’t until the past few years when these DNA testing kits became popular that I decided to find out more about my heritage.
So, I sent my saliva in a test tube to these folks to solve the mystery of my ancestry. The company, 23andMe, claims to not only send you the DNA results of your ancestry but also provides you with a list of DNA relatives along with any pre-dispositions to health issues. I declined the option to be notified of any major diseases or conditions that may cause my demise. I just don’t want to know if I will spend my remaining years with an awful condition or disease. What will be, will be. The results came back in about ten days and I was eager to delve into the results. According to the 23andMe reports, the data of my ancestry all made sense to me now. Here is what I found out:
- 87.4 % of my ancestry is Southern European, specifically Italian. Well, that was a relief. To have found out I was not Italian at this stage of my life would have been devastating! The majority of my ancestors were from Sicily while others were from Calabria, Campania, Apulia, Liguria, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Emilia-Romagna and Lazio.
- 11.6% of my DNA comes from Western Asia and North Africa. This ancestry is composed of Cypriot, Iranian, North African, Arab, Egyptian, and Levantine. AH HA!! Maybe what everyone thought was true. Certainly, my name came from one of these groups. Mystery solved.
- 0.8% of what was referred to as Trace Ancestry includes Ghanaian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean, Filipino, Austronesian, Nigerian and Chinese. This was surprising, to say the least. Although I am Caucasian and look Italian, I actually have African and Chinese blood somewhere in the mix! I found this truly fascinating.
- 0.2% was Unassigned. 23andMe claims as more and more people get tested, my DNA results may change and will eventually pinpoint more details on exactly where my ancestors came from geographically.
Moving on to the next report which provided me with my DNA relatives, I discovered I have 3,105 relatives who have been DNA tested. Of these relatives, I recognized one 1st. cousin (who I have never met although I do remember my uncle, his father), a handful of 2nd and 3rd cousins (some surnames are known to me) and the remaining cousins are 4th, 5th removed and distant cousins, none of whom are known. I don’t plan on having a huge family reunion anytime soon but this report was interesting nonetheless. The results of your DNA relatives are also placed on a presumed family tree so you can more or less figure out what side of the family these relatives come from.
There is also a report listing your Maternal and Paternal Haplogroups that trace the origins of your ancestor thousands of years ago. Who knew that I share the same DNA as Luke the Evangelist and Thomas Jefferson? Does this mean Thomas Jefferson was Sicilian? No, however his DNA derived from the same Haplogroup group as my paternal line going back thousands of years to Asia and East Africa. All in all a very satisfying, interesting and eye-opening experience for anyone interested in tracing their family origins. At least now I can sleep at night knowing that yes, I am almost 90% Italian with a unique middle-eastern last name.
If you are interested in finding out more about DNA tracing, Ancestry.com, LivingDNA and 23andMe are the leaders in this type of testing. The cost is approximately $100 however I have seen discounted specials usually around major holidays. Who knows? We could be related!