Discovering Your Pontic Greek Family History: Is Taking a DNA Test Useful?

 Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

 Sam Topalidis 2021 (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

 ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’
(Lewis Carroll).

Introduction

We have a need to belong somewhere and to have an affiliation with an ethnicity and or a country.  People who claim Pontic Greek origins most probably had some Christian Greek ancestors who lived in Pontos (the north-east corner of Anatolia adjacent to the Black Sea) (Note 1).  In addition, some of their Pontic Greek ancestors may have lived in the former Russian empire or the former Soviet Union (close to the Black Sea), having left Pontos from the 18th century to the early 20th century.

Family history endeavours for Pontic Greeks have many challenges.  For the remaining ethnic Greeks in Pontos (who survived the genocide), they were forced to leave Turkey in the early 1920s.  With the lack of official records on Greeks in current day Turkey, this provides a problem for Pontic Greeks who wish to record their family history.  To try to fill some of the gap in their family history, some may consider paying for human DNA tests for genealogical purposes.

As we go back in time, the number of ancestors can double with each generation.  This clearly leads to an incredibly large number of ancestors.  However, our personal genetic tree is not equivalent to our genealogical tree—not every one of our direct ancestors has contributed to our genome.  There is a point in time at which the genetic connection between an individual and the many generations of grandparents vanishes away to nothing, despite the fact that the genealogical tree keeps growing (Kenneally 2014:218).  (Note 2.)

The purpose of this paper is to help Pontic Greeks specifically and Greeks generally, discover their family history.

 The Origins of Greeks from Pontos 

In the Late Bronze Age [1600 to 1200 BC], Minoans and even more so Mycenaean Greeks (from the Greek mainland) (Note 3) had a strong presence in Miletos on the west coast of Anatolia.  Following the general cataclysm that affected that part of the eastern Mediterranean in the decades around 1200 BC [which ended the Mycenaean and Hittite civilisations], many mainland Greeks moved eastwards to Anatolia during the 12th and 11th centuries BC (Cartledge 2011).  The Greek colony of Miletos became a prominent city and absorbed some local Anatolian natives.

However, from the 7th century BC, Lydia, its eastern neighbour, expanded taking territory from Miletos.  Miletos then began sending out its first colonisers into the Black Sea and was predominantly responsible for establishing Greek colonies in Pontos.  Miletos founded the Greek colony of Sinope in Pontos in the 7th century BC by forcibly removing the local Anatolian natives at the site.  (Later, local Anatolian natives were absorbed into Sinope.)  According to Xenophon (c. 400 BC), Sinope founded Trabzon, Kotyora (Ordu) and Kerasous (Giresun).  Amisos was founded around 564 BC on the site of modern Samsun (founded by either Miletos, or jointly by Phocaea and Miletos) (Tsetskhladze 2007).  The native Anatolians probably also formed part of the population in Amisos.

The Greek colony at Trabzon later also absorbed some Anatolian natives.  Today, Pontic Greeks ‘may’ be descendants of:

* Greek colonists in Pontos
* indigenous Anatolians
* other Greeks (from mainland Greece and the Greek islands) or other people who had moved from the mid-19th century to Pontic ports because of business opportunities
* local non-Christians in Pontos or others who migrated to Pontos and absorbed Greek culture and became Christians. (At various times in the past many Pontic Greeks were forced to convert to Islam.) 

From the 18th century, many Pontic Greeks moved to southern Russia and the Caucasus.  More recently, Greeks were living in Pontos when in 1916, the Russian army invaded north-eastern Anatolia.  When the Russian army left by early 1918, many Pontic Greeks followed them to southern Russia and the Caucasus.  (The genocide of Greeks in Pontos by the Ottoman Turks and later by the Kemalists took place from 1916 to 1923.)  By the end of 1924, effectively all remaining ‘Christian’ Greeks had been forced to leave Anatolia for Greece under the compulsory population exchange of people of the Greek Orthodox religion in Turkey.  (A much smaller number of people of the Muslim religion who lived in Greece were moved to Turkey.)

Many Pontic Greeks left the former Soviet Union for Greece in the late 1930s during the purges by Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union 1924–1953).  In the 1940s, Stalin deported Greeks (many of them Pontic Greeks) from the Caucasus, southern Russia and Crimea to the central Soviet republics like Kazakhstan.

After 1953, with the death of Stalin, some of these Greeks were able to return to their former regions in the Soviet Union and to Greece.  Many more returned to Greece (over 147,000) between 1989 and 1999 (Diamanti-Karanou 2003).

How to Undertake a Pontic Greek Family History 

With such a history, Pontic Greeks confront many obstacles if they wish to trace their family history.  Here are some steps to discover your Pontic Greek family history:

  1. The highest priority is always to interview elderly relatives about their family history and record it.  Be aware they may become tired and want to stop before they have completed telling their stories.  So, at least one follow-up interview is needed.

Ideally, the interviews should be conducted face-to-face.  When you meet relative(s) for this information exchange, turn off all phones and any other forms of distraction.  If the doorbell rings, don’t answer it!  Try to let your relative(s) talk uninterrupted as this will help them with their flow of information.  (You can however, ask short questions like ‘where’ or ‘when’.)  Be aware that they may describe horrific stories that may be stressful to recount.

After the interview, write-up all the information and produce a detailed family tree.  Begin a family tree with: birth date and place, marriage date and place, death date and place, with siblings in each generation.  Determine when ancestors left Pontos and from what port.  Did they travel to Greece or did they first go to the former Soviet Union?

Don’t assume all the recorded information is correct.  It needs to be checked.  Identify inconsistencies and gaps in the recorded information and promptly organise the next meeting to ask additional questions.  In this meeting try not to argue with relatives.  Bring along old family photographs and heirlooms and ask for details about them.  If the photos are in a photo album check if anything is written on the back of the photographs. 

  1. Study family and public documents like: birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates; citizenship, immigration, ship passenger and census records, old passports and old letters.  Don’t forget that some information on official documents may be incorrect, particularly the spelling of names and dates of birth.

Australian citizenship, immigration and ship passenger information can be found in the National Archives of Australia at: <https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/search-people/researching-your-family>.  Please note that Greek surnames can change when Greeks move to different countries.

The Greek register of refugees from Anatolia and Eastern Thrace who arrived in Greece in the early 1920s may also be useful at: <https://www.pontosnews.gr/498045/istoria/vres-tous-prosfyges-syngeneis-sou/>.

Essential reading for Greek genealogy is Catsakis (2010) (in English) which is available at: <https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Family_History_Research_in_Greece,_3rd_edition>.  This document will help in obtaining records in Greece (like birth and death certificates) covering the period your ancestors lived there and additional information.  If you are able to visit the appropriate Town Hall in Greece, take your passport to prove your identity, in order to attain copies of these certificates.

Also study the information by Professor Hionidou (2021) on Greek family history (in English and Greek) at: <https://apps.ncl.ac.uk/GreekFamilyHistory/Page/About>.

Online information at the General State Archives of Greece may also be useful at: <http://arxeiomnimon.gak.gr/index.html>. 

  1. Study reliable history on Pontos in order to create a more complete family history.  For English sources seek out especially the monumental work by Bryer and Winfield (1985), and then Topalidis (2007; 2019a; 2019b) and Pontic websites like PontosWorld.  For those who can read Greek, the books by Dr Vlassis Agtzidis are highly recommended.  Of course, you can try to find other reliable information on the Internet.

‘Reliable’ historical information will help you to better understand what was happening in the period when your ancestors lived, e.g. when the Russian army invaded north-eastern Anatolia in World War I, the genocide of Christians (and other minorities) in Anatolia in the early 20th century and when Christian Greeks were forced to leave Anatolia in the early 1920s.

Procuring maps of Pontos will be useful in determining the location of ancestral towns and villages.  A set of maps of Pontos (in Greek) at 1:250,000 scale can be purchased from Kyriakidis Bros Publications SA, Thessaloniki at: <https://www.afoikyriakidi.gr/en/oi-oikismoi-tvn-ellhnvn-ston-mikrasiatiko-ponto>. 

  1. Write a research log of all your searches, whether on-line or not.  This will be invaluable, especially if you ‘stop and start’ research over many years.  This will save time in the long-run by not duplicating some research. 
  1. When it becomes safe to travel overseas, be willing to travel to Turkey and Greece to visit the villages or towns where your ancestors once lived and to obtain further information.  For example, in Greece valuable information may be found at the following institutions:

* Epitropi Pontiakon Meleton (Centre for Pontic Studies) at Nea Smyrna, Athens <https://www0.epm.gr/epm.gr/>. Visit their great museum which holds Pontic costumes, historical documents and other memorabilia <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjTp--Z2KAY>. They also publish the highly respected academic journal Archeion Pontou(Pontic Archives) and other books.

* Kentrou Mikrasiatikon Spoudon (Centre for Asia Minor Studies) in the Plaka, Athens, which have documented interviews (in Greek) of ethnic Greeks from Anatolia who arrived in Greece in the early 20th century <http://en.kms.org.gr/>. They may have documented interviews from people from villages or towns where your ancestors once lived. The Centre has also published books (in Greek) based on these interviews. They also publish a bulletin.

* Pontic Greek community associations which may have useful information to share. They may also hold heirlooms of interest.

* General State Archives of Greece, at Psychiko, Athens which may hold records brought to Greece from Pontos, e.g. some 19th century church records from the (now destroyed) St Gregory church in Trabzon (Topalidis 2007). Not all the records at the archives are available online.

* Benaki Museum in Athens which holds Pontic Greek costumes, Pontic musical instruments and exquisite church silverware from some Pontic Greek churches (Plate 1).

Most or many of the records of people who lived in Pontos (Armenians, Greeks, Turks and others) were lost during World War I (Note 4).  Some records in Russia and the Caucasus were lost during World War I, World War II or in the Georgian Civil War (1992–1993) in the north-western region of Abkhazia (Note 5).

 Plate 1: Silverware from churches in Pontos, Benaki Museum, Athens (author’s photo)

6. Finally, consider whether taking human DNA tests for genealogical purposes (to establish relationships between individuals)from a commercial DNA testing company could be of any use in your investigations.  Be aware that they may not be value for money.

There are three main genealogical tests that may be purchased:

* Y-chromosome DNA (for males only)
* Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) (for males and females)
* Autosomal DNA (for males and females).  

Sadly, the cheapest entry level tests within these three main genealogical tests usually don’t provide accurate enough information.  Some of these commercial DNA testing companies for genealogy include: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, Living DNA and MyHeritage DNA.  Make sure you study the privacy statement on the DNA testing company’s website to determine if data will be shared.

DNA Tests for Genealogical Purposes

The following is only a very basic description of the three main human DNA tests for genealogical purposes—Y-chromosome DNA, Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and autosomal DNA (Note 6).  In addition to comparing results with others who have tested with the same DNA testing company, DNA results can also be uploaded to sites like GEDmatch to determine if there are additional possible close matches with people from other DNA testing companies who have also uploaded their data.  Once again, users of these tests should check the privacy statement on these websites.  Users will need to determine for themselves if paying for any DNA tests for genealogical purposes may be useful.

The Federation of Family History Societies (UK) (2018) suggests possible reasons why people wish to have a human DNA test for genealogical purposes.  Some of these reasons include to:

* connect with possible [close] relatives who are also interested in family history and have been tested. In these cases, matches with cousins [hopefully close cousins] ‘may’
   lead to the discovery of useful genealogical information
* help locate a biological mother or father if adoption of a child has occurred.

The Federation also states there are possible pitfalls with the genealogical information.  Some of these include:

* People may discover illegitimacy or adoption in the recent past of which they were unaware
* Just because people find a match in the database, this does not prove kinship. However, the closer the match [e.g. first to third cousins], the more likely the connection is to     be real.

Y-chromosome DNA Test

Only males have a Y-chromosome and this chromosome is passed down from father to son to son to son etc.  [This is only one slice of your DNA.]  Females cannot take the Y-chromosome test, so they will need to have a male relative like a brother or father to take the test.  Determining whether two people share ancestors is based on probabilities, speculating about whether their DNA test results are similar enough to be significant.  A test with 37 markers may be a minimum for meaningful conclusions for family history (Note 7).  This test may be useful to match with people who also have the same surname (Farmer 2017:17).

This test will probably also identify the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup.  A Y-chromosome ‘family tree of mankind’ indicates where a haplogroup fits as a branch into the family tree of all modern humans, each branch of the tree starting thousands (or tens of thousands) of years in the past.  A haplogroup ‘suggests’ your deep ancestral origins (Farmer 2017:19).

A Y-chromosome DNA [apparently] marks the path from your direct paternal ancestors in Africa to their locations in historic times.  The current geography of the line shows the path of this journey.  A branch on the tree indicates where paternal ancestors are present today and about their likely migration paths <https://learn.familytreedna.com/dna-basics/ydna/>.  Rutherford (2016:164, 166) states no scientific test exists that will reveal where the DNA that would be inherited was precisely located in the past.  Human history is full of the fluid movement of people.  Ancestry that sprouts upwards from an individual becomes unfathomably enmeshed the further back one goes.  Much of the DNA from all these ancestors is not present [in an individual], so a single geographical location is little more than meaningless.  The calculation averages a location based on where an individual shares ‘some’ bits of DNA in the present day.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is used to trace a direct maternal line (mother’s, mother’s, mother etc.).  Mothers pass their mtDNA to all their children, but only daughters pass mtDNA on to the next generation.  Both females and males can have this test.  It can provide information about ancestors [on the maternal line only, which is only one slice of a person’s ancestors] in the past.

Two test-takers who match perfectly in a full sequence test have a 90% chance that their shared ancestor lived within 16 generations (about 400 years)—and a 50% chance of sharing a matrilineal ancestor within the last five generations (about 125 years).  A mtDNA test result can also report the mitochondrial DNA haplogroup.  Knowing a haplogroup [estimates] the origins and migratory paths of an individual’s own maternal ancestors (Farmer 2017).  See Rutherford (2016) (above) on the problems with migratory paths.

Autosomal DNA Test 

The autosomal DNA test is designed to find relatives on any ancestral lines within the last five generations.  The test uses autosomal DNA, which is the mixture of DNA received from both parents (about 50% from the mother and about 50% from the father).  Both men and women can complete this test.  This test cannot distinguish between matches from a mother’s or father’s side.  If an individual is trying to confirm a relationship with someone else who is a third cousin or closer, the autosomal test is recommended.  The test can also provide a [so-called] breakdown of an individual’s ethnic makeup <https://learn.familytreedna.com/dna-basics/autosomal/>.  Note that the conclusions about ethnic origins are based on the particular reference sample sets in the company’s database and sometimes even how people had described their own ancestry (Farmer 2017).

To sum up, DNA is very good at determining close family relations such as siblings or parents.  For deeper family roots, these tests do not really reveal where one’s ancestors originate.  It simply reveals where an individual’s DNA can be found today.  By inference, an individual may ‘assume’ that significant proportions of his or her deep family came from those places.  As a result of testing, to say an individual is for example, 30% German etc. is trivial and has very little scientific meaning.  We all have many thousands of ancestors and family trees become matted webs as we go back in time, which means before long, our ancestors become everyone’s ancestors.  Humankind is fascinatingly closely related, and DNA will tell you little about your culture, history and identity (Rutherford 2018).  (Note 8.)  Culture is something you live through your experience (Harrington 2020).

The power of any study that attempts to reconstruct past population movements from present-day populations is limited (Reich 2018:xv–xvi).


Notes

Note 1

Some modern day Muslim Turks had some Pontic Greek ancestors who were forced to convert to Islam.
Ethnicity can be generally defined as a sense of belonging to a group, based on shared ideas of group history, language, experience and culture (Chatty 2010).

Note 2 

The genes of your forebears have little influence over you.  Unless you carry a particular disease that has passed down the family tree, the shuffling of genes, the dilution through generations mean that your ancestors have little sway over you at all (Rutherford 2016).
For example, Queen Elizabeth II of England almost certainly inherited no DNA from William of Normandy, who conquered England in 1066 and who is believed to be [one of] her ancestors 24 generations back in time.  This does not mean that she did not inherit DNA from ancestors that far back, just that it is expected that only about 1,751 of her 16,777,216 24th degree genealogical ancestors contributed any DNA to her (Reich 2018:11–12).

Note 3 

The Bronze Age Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus and Iran.  However, the Mycenaeans differed from the Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from a source related to the hunter-gatherers of Eastern Europe and Siberia, introduced via a central source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe or Armenia.  It is unknown when the common ‘eastern’ ancestry of both Minoans and Mycenaeans arrived in the Aegean (Lazaridis et al. 2017:214, 218).

Note 4 

For example, in Trabzon in 1916, during the Russian occupation in World War I, the entire archive of the region and the courts for the entire period of Turkish control had been thrown into the ravine below one of the bridges and burnt (Mintslov 1923).

Note 5

Nearly all of the records in the State Archives building in Sohoumi were destroyed during the civil war in Abkhazia, Georgia.  The archives contained the entire documentation of the Greek community, a library and a collection of historical research from all the Greek villages of Abkhazia (Ascherson 1995).  Nothing from before the Revolution was left (the archive dated back to 1840) and the only section that survived more or less intact was the radio archives from the 1930s.  The Abkhazia Communist Party archive, which was kept in a different building, was partly wrecked by Georgian troops.  The remainder was moved into Sokhumi’s Government House and then ruined when the Abkhazians captured Sokhumi in 1993.  It was estimated that of 176,000 archival documents in Abkhazia, before the war, 168,000 had been destroyed (De Waal 2002).

Note 6 

With the study of human genetics there are no differences among human populations that are large enough to support the concept of ‘biological race’.  There are substantial average genetic differences across populations, like the ability to efficiently digest starch or milk sugar, the ability to breathe easily at high altitudes and susceptibility to particular diseases.  For the great majority of traits, there is much more variation within populations than across populations.  This means that individuals with extreme high or low values of the great majority of traits can occur in any population (Reich 2018:250, 255).

Note 7

Rather than testing all of a person’s Y-DNA, specific places in areas of reasonably stable DNA are defined as markers.  Genealogical DNA tests of the Y-chromosome compare short tandem repeats (STRs) (repeat counts) at marker points (Farmer 2017:17).

Note 8 

In genealogy, pedigree collapse describes how reproduction between two individuals who share an ancestor causes the family tree of their offspring to be smaller than it would otherwise be.  The number of individuals in such a tree grows exponentially and will eventually become impossibly high.  For example, a single individual alive today would, over 30 generations going back, have roughly a billion ancestors, which is more than the total world population at the time.  This apparent paradox occurs because the individuals in the family tree are not distinct: instead, a single individual may occupy multiple places in the family tree.  This typically happens when the parents of an ancestor are cousins.  This reduction in the number of ancestors is pedigree collapse <https://isogg.org/wiki/Pedigree_collapse>.

Declaration

Many years ago the author purchased Y-chromosome DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and autosomal DNA tests from the commercial company FamilyTreeDNA.

Clarification

In this document words within square brackets [ ] within a reference are the author’s words.

Acknowledgements

I warmly thank Michael Bennett and Russell McCaskie for their incisive comments on a draft of this document.

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