A couple of years ago, the company Ancestry (which provides genealogical services, including DNA testing) ran a TV ad that featured a man who thought his background was German. It included a picture of him in lederhosen. But his DNA results showed that he should have been wearing a kilt.

My own DNA results are in. I’d like to invite Ancestry to feature me in an Irish step-dancing outfit.

Yes, I’ve had a bit of a surprise.

Three of my grandparents emigrated from the Azores, islands that are a part of Portugal. My paternal grandmother’s people were Québecois. I assumed my DNA would show significant ancestry from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), with a smaller amount from France; likely western France, the home of most immigrants to Quebec.

I figured there probably would be other, smaller contributors. I know for a fact that I have four native Canadians (First Nations people, as they are called in Canada) in my French-Canadian line. The Portuguese lines could contain a variety of elements. The Moors (Arabs and Berbers from North Africa) ruled Iberia for centuries. There was a significant settlement of Flemish people (Dutch-speaking Belgians) in the Azores.

Some Portuguese Jews, tormented and facing exile (or worse) during the Inquisition, went underground, or converted. They might turn up. The Portuguese in the 15th century were great explorers. They created an empire. Lisbon was a bustling, cosmopolitan city. People from all over the world were coming and going.


For all of these reasons, I was curious to see what my DNA would tell me about my ancestors.

But I never dreamed I’d have a significant percentage of gene types common to the British and Irish.

Here’s how it played out: I am 32 percent Iberian. I’m also 19 percent Irish/Scottish/Welsh, and 18 percent English. I was boggled to learn that I am slightly more Anglo/Celtic (37 percent) than I am Iberian. I suppose I can combine my 12 percent “Europe South” (Italy, Greece) with my Iberian ancestry to make me 44 percent Southern European (my lifetime identity), but that doesn’t really help. I’m confused. All I can say is that I’ve always been an Anglophile. Maybe this is why.

Oh, and by the way, I am 5 percent North African as well.

I quickly learned that figuring all this out requires a history lesson. The Celts, it turns out, did not begin life in the British isles. They hail from Central Europe, from whence they sallied forth, settling where they might — including Iberia. The Romans invaded and ruled Iberia, which they called Lusitania. The Phoenicians (a loosely aligned association of city-states in what is now Israel, Syria, Lebanon and southwest Turkey) had settlements in Portugal; then the Carthaginians (think Hannibal and his elephants) took over.

I am amazed to think that someone who thought she had a pretty straightforward genealogy actually has roots that are a swirling vortex of complexity.


At first glance, I thought my high percentage of Celtic DNA was the result of commerce—Britons coming to Portugal for the port wine trade, for example. Sometimes the name “Soares” is interpreted as an old English word for “goat herder.” But it’s possible I don’t have U.K. DNA. Rather, Brits might have Iberian genes.

This idea is borne out by various articles in the British press regarding the DNA connection between the Basque country (the Basques are an ethnic group whose region spans north-central Spain and southwestern France) and the British, especially the Welsh.

It is also possible that my U.K. genes are traceable to French ancestors from Brittany, which saw a large influx of Britons from the fourth through the sixth centuries. My Ancestry profile does seem to suggest this connection with its reference to “Saint Lawrence River French Settlers.”

The North African connection is much easier to explain. In fact, Spain and Portugal have the highest percentage of North African DNA in all of Europe, and Portugal’s is quite a bit higher than Spain’s. In Portugal, the average is 4 percent, plus or minus 0.03 percent. Mine is 5 percent. Given the hateful climate in our country today, I am proud to have this heritage. North Africans are almost all Muslim and Arabic-speaking.

My native Canadian heritage showed up in a small way — less than 1 percent. So did an equally small Jewish element. Since I know the exact number of my native Canadian ancestors (four), I’ll estimate four Jews as well. So my 5 percent North African ancestry would translate into approximately 20 North Africans.

I’m not going to try to figure out how many Anglo/Celt ancestors I have. Just tune up the bagpipes, please.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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