In search of "Forefather Czech" - DNA tests disclose remote ancestors

Photo: Commission européenne

One of the first things Czech children learn at school is that Czechs are the descendants of Slavic tribes and they speak a Western Slavonic language. The Slavs came to these parts of Europe some time in the 6th century AD. But since then waves of migration as well as foreign invaders coming from the East, West and North have left their genetic marks on the population. The Prague-based biotech company Genomac has recently started providing commercial DNA tests to those who would like to trace their earliest ancestors in a continuous paternal or maternal line.

Marek Minarik,  photo: Zdenek Valis
Genomac are also hoping to start a project soon which would produce a representative genographic picture of the Czech population, which - based on results the company has collected so far - turns out to be truly European. I met with Genomac's Marek Minarik and Jan Zastera and first asked Marek about the practical details of their genographic tests.

MM: "Basically, it's just like any other test that we provide to the public. We send out a DNA sampling kit that contains small brushes and small test tubes. People collect their saliva - it's called buccal swabs - and then they put it in the tube and send it back to the lab. What we do then, we isolate the DNA molecule and we analyse it to look for specific markers. Once we have the markers, we either look at the certain combinations that are typical for certain roots, certain ancestry origins, or we simply take the DNA profiles that we get and enter them into an international database. Basically, from that database we get a first hint where the person's ancestors may come from."

Are many people interested in finding out where their earliest roots are?

MM: "I think that the interest is probably not as big as for example in the United States where, obviously, people are definitely interested in finding their roots, however probably also due to the geographic localisation of the Czech Republic a lot of people would think that perhaps their original roots are not typically Czech, a lot of people would wish their roots were Celtic, for example. When we started almost exactly a year ago, we didn't expect that much of an interest. Now we have two tests: one is to find out your ancestry through the paternal line, and the other one is to find the ancestry through the maternal line. Of course, we get more interest from the paternal line. It's especially the men who want to know where their forefathers came from."

What are the most common types detected in the Czech Republic's population? Who are we, actually, as Czechs?

JZ: "It's very difficult to say. Here in the Czech Republic, there are many people who speak Czech and think that there are typical Czechs but genetically, they have roots in, for example, Western Europe or Scandinavia or on the other side in Eastern Europe, in the area of the Caucasus. But generally, the biggest genetic group is, let's say, of Eastern European origin. This genetic group is usually defined as the most frequent genetic type found in people of Slavic origin. So these people are Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians and include some parts of Southern Slavic peoples, like Serbs, Croats and so on. So this is the biggest genetic group in the Czech Republic.

"But on the other hand, there is also another - the second biggest group - and this group contains people who have roots in Western Europe. These origins are typical mainly for people who are now defined as people of the Romance language group and particularly of the Germanic language group. So this is the second biggest group in the Czech Republic. And besides these two groups we also have some other smaller groups. On the third place, there is a group from Scandinavia and from Mediterranean Europe. In this group there are many roots which are defined as very frequent among Jewish people."

Now back to Marek, have there been any surprises, like people originating from very distant corners of the world?

MM: "Yes, actually, there are two kinds of surprises. One is that we are surprised and that's for example when we receive a request from somebody whose last name sounds typically Czech or typically Slavic and then we find out that he has a typical Germanic origin. At the beginning it was quite unusual for us. Now we actually see a pattern. We see that there is actually very little correlation between the sound of the last name and the actual origin or ancestry. So that's probably when we are surprised.

"Sometimes, the people who undergo these tests are very surprised. A typical example would be that somebody who knows that they don't have a typical Central European origin, somebody who thinks he is from Italy, he knows that the family that he comes from is from Italy but that does not mean that the family itself originated in Italy. Most of the times the family might originate in North Africa, maybe even sometimes in Central Africa. We had one case that I can recall. We had a guy who thought he had a Middle-Eastern origin and who was interested whether we can 'decode' it. And we actually found out that his real origin, genetic origin, comes from Somalia, from Central Africa, where apparently some of the tribes went north and ended up in the Middle East.

Photo: European Commission
"So that was interesting and it also had something to do with many cases when people think they can 'trick' us, if I may say so. They are very surprised and they send us these fantastic responses 'Oh great, I thought I would fool you with my last name but you're right. My family say we are from the Middle East, for example, or from Spain, and I thought that my last name would fool you and it didn't!'"

There are about 10 million Czechs. In the mid-17th century, after the Thirty Years' war, there were only about a million of us. To what extent are we all related?

MM: "Speaking about the surprises we discussed before, one thing that really surprised us and did not come out until we had a thousand people in the database was how related we really are. And this is one of the things we plan to announce when we open the database, basically a fact that every third person in the database has at least two other relatives in the database. Now, of course, because we don't investigate these people, they might be people in the family. However, when we looked at the last names, we did not find any common last names in there.

"Also when we look at the locations - right now we can only look at the post codes - those are people from different corners of the country. We are all from the same cup of soup, I think, because there are really not that many really different outlining origins. I would say maybe out of the hundred percent of people, maybe 70 percent will definitely find somebody who is related to them. Exactly related, that means the entire profile is identical, which means that at least fifty generations back they have one single common male fore- fore- forefather."