Just as recent studies of the human genome have revealed clandestine relationships among our distant human relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans, they can also uncover secrets in our recent ancestry. Like many who have had their DNA tested using the latest DNA technology, I have discovered some “off the record” goings on in my family tree hidden within my genome.

On paper I am a bona fide Brit. My ancestors hail from all four corners of the British Isles. My eight great grandparents were born in rural villages in western Scotland, southern Wales, Northern Ireland and the English counties of Yorkshire, Norfolk, Devon, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Figure 1 shows the birthplace of each of my four maternal (pink diamonds) and four paternal (blue diamonds) great grandparents. According to my pedigree chart I’m about as British as you can get. My DNA, however, tells a slightly different tale.

Figure 1. The birthplace of my eight great grandparents

In 2017 I took a cheek swab and mailed it off to Living DNA, a genealogy company based in the UK. I chose Living DNA because they have an extensive reference database for the UK, an important factor to keep in mind when deciding which company to use for a DNA ancestry test.  Living DNA’s database includes over two thousand hand picked individuals from all across the British Isles. They had been selected because their four grandparents were all born within 50 miles of each other. Their DNA effectively carries a signature of the locality where their grandparents were born.

Using this database, Living DNA is able to assign proportions of a person’s genome to various locations in Britain and Ireland. If a person has British DNA, then Living DNA can tell you where it came from.  This is amply demonstrated by the agreement between my recorded family history and my DNA genealogy, which is surprisingly accurate, aside from one little glitch. About 11 percent of my DNA comes from Central Europe, the bulk of it (8%) originating in Northern Italy!

Before delving further into my now clouded ancestry, a brief look at some basic biology is informative.  While we each receive close to 50% of our DNA from our father and 50% from our mother, the proportions we receive from each of our more distant relatives are variable (Figure 2). We receive an average of 25% from each grandparent and an average of 12.5% from each great grandparent. The reason these numbers are averages is a process called recombination, or crossing over, which occurs between parental chromosomes. It’s a somewhat random process, that often results in unequal proportions of our DNA coming from different ancestors. It’s quite possible, for example, to receive 6% of your DNA from one great grandparent and 18% from another.

Figure 2. While we inherit exactly 50% of our DNA from each parent, we receive different proportions from each of our more distant ancestors due to recombination.

Back to my DNA story. When you look closely there is a clear alignment between my written genealogy and my DNA genealogy, at least on my mother’s side. Close to 50% of my genome is derived from regions where my maternal ancestors originate (Figure 3). I was a little unlucky to receive a smaller proportion of Irish DNA than I would have liked, which was made up for with slightly more from each of my other three maternal grandparents.

Figure 3. The alignment of my paper and DNA genealogy

However, the story becomes more complicated on my father’s side of the family. Only about 40% of my genome could be assigned to regions in the United Kingdom that broadly align with my father’s ancestry. The poorer alignment between DNA and paper genealogy in southern and central England may be due to the fact that this region has been more heavily impacted by Germanic immigration (Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc) than more isolated regions such as Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland. Historically, this part of Britain has also had fewer geographical and political barriers to human movement.

Most surprising, however, is the fact that 10.8% of my genome matches the genomes of Northern Italians (7.9%) and other central Europeans (2.9%). Given that each of my great grandparents on average contributed 12.5% of my DNA, this strongly suggests that one of my four great grandparents on my father’s side of the family was not British. 

We will never know for certain which one of my paternal great grandparents was Italian, but it’s fun to speculate. We can effectively rule out my two great grandmothers. It is almost certain the Italian DNA entered our family tree via a male, by far the most common explanation for DNA anomalies in a person’s family tree. In my case this is supported by the fact that I clearly have DNA from two very isolated regions in the UK, namely Devon and south Wales, which is where my father’s two great grandmothers, Emma Jane Stephens and Mary Maud Powell were born, respectively (Figure 4).

Figure 4. My pedigree chart showing the locations from where my great grandparents originate

It turns out that non-paternity—when someone who is presumed to be an individual’s father is not in fact their biological father—is pretty common, occurring at roughly 4% percent in families. The odds of there being a single non-paternity event in an average family tree in the last four generations are surprisingly high; running dangerously close to 1 in 3. Chances are that one of my paternal great grandfathers, either Job Witchell or R.G. Southerton, isn’t my biological ancestor (Figure 4), and I am beginning to suspect that might be Job.

In order for an Italian to enter my family tree, it was essential for one of my great grandmothers to have encountered Italians, a very rare commodity in rural UK in the late 1800s. Of my four great grandmothers, Mary Maud Powell is by far the most likely to have encountered Italians due to a significant turn of events in her life.

Mary Maud Powell

On July 5 1882, Mary Maud Powell married Job Witchell, the son of a coal miner, in Bristol, England. Within weeks they left England for a place about as far away from a British coal mine as they could get. They set sail for Hong Kong where Job took up a position in the Hong Kong police force. Thanks to Hong Kong historian Rudi Butt, and the nature of Job Witchell’s “policing”, we have some intriguing clues that suggest the Witchells regularly encountered Italians in Hong Kong.

Job Witchell

Several years after their arrival in Hong Kong, Job was convicted of police corruption (taking bribes from illegal gambling) and served 6 months in jail. Just weeks before his release from jail, Mary died, leaving Job with 5 children under the age of 14, including my grandmother, Edith Ethel Witchell, who was just 2 years old. After his release from prison, Job apologised for his crimes, after originally denying them, and went on to lead a much less exciting life. He married Minnie Goodes from Australia in 1909, and from all accounts was a devoted and admired father to his five children and three stepchildren.

From Rudi’s detailed historical research we know that Job’s grandchildren were schooled at a Catholic convent. From 1858 to this day, the Catholic church in Hong Kong has been served by missionaries from northern Italy drawn from the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Milan (now the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). The Witchell’s isolation from their family in the UK, and their ties to Catholicism, may have led to a close encounter of a Milanese kind on the other side of the world, and the infusion of Italian genes into our family’s genomes.

Edith Ethel Witchell (10 years old), Deep Water Bay, Hong Kong, 1906