How Did Vikings End Up in My Family Tree?

Tracing Your Roots: A black reader wonders about a DNA test that turned up Orcadian roots.

Skara Brae, Orkney Islands (
Skara Brae, Orkney Islands (

(The Root) — Sometimes DNA testing can yield results that will leave you scratching your head, as was the case with the reader below.

“I recently did a DNA test using Family Tree DNA’s service, and the results are 10.53 percent European (specifically Finnish, French, Orcadian, Romanian, Russian, with a margin of error of +0.08 percent) and 89.47 percent West African Yoruba (also with a margin of error of +0.08 percent).

“My brother did the testing for our father’s side. Our father was a Creole who died four years ago. We found no trace of African blood from that test and my brother was furious. I do not have the exact numbers but the findings were: Spanish, English, German, Finnish — Spanish and English being the highest.

“This result really surprised me. How did the Orcadian blood get into our background? I looked up Orcadians and they are Vikings. French ancestry, I would have no problem understanding, but Finnish, Romanian and Russian roots?

“I’m attending a family reunion of my mother’s people in Missouri on July 5, 2013, and will be handing out the results of the testing. My grandmother was a ‘Johnson’ from Kentucky her family migrated to Missouri during the 1870s. In Missouri, grandmother married a ‘Hardin,’ so I’m getting DNA samples from my male cousin — we share the same grandfather (Hardin) looking for that Indian or Asian blood that the family is always taking about.

“Whatever information you can pass on will be greatly appreciated.” –Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti

If your brother took Family Tree DNA’s y-DNA test, which measures your father’s father’s father’s ancestry through the male sex chromosome, then the results indicate that you could be descended from a white male ancestor who impregnated a black female ancestor, probably during slavery. The other results that you report are measures of your ancestry across your entire genome, dating back over the last 500 years.

The European portion of your DNA certainly reflects both how the Family Tree DNA Population Finder functions and the way in which interacting populations lead to interesting results in descendants.

Family Tree DNA‘s Population Finder compares each participant’s DNA to reference populations from academic studies. The tool will then find the closest mix of represented populations that match the specific variations in that person’s DNA. Some of the examples the company presents in explanation involve how mixing Orcadian and South Indian or mixing Finnish, French and Tuscan samples can “create the same genetic combination” as German ancestry. The combination of some of the populations returned with your results could indicate ancestry from another population entirely. Orcadian is not to be used as a definite indicator, but rather the current best option, says FTDNA’s president Bennett Greenspan.

If you are truly descended from Orcadians, know that their population is from the Orkney Islands, which are off the coast of Scotland. As such, it includes a mix of the Scot, Pict and Norwegian Viking people. The Norsemen ruled the Orkney Islands from around 875 until 1468 (when the islands were given to Scotland). Norway and Finland neighbor each other and have also experienced natural population swapping. Orkney, being a set of islands, made the area a prime trading hub used as a base for raiding (by the Vikings), for fishing and by merchants. It would have been very easy for ancestors from this area to come in contact with people from other lands. In fact, Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada was mostly employed by Orcadians once recruitment there began in 1702.