Sunday, July 25, 2010

Venetian DNA: a first look

Readers of this blog may recall several posts over the years concerning our quest to trace the origins of the Venetians using DNA analyses (type "dna" in the search box on the right of the blog to see them all) . There are competing theories and references to the legendary origins of the Veneti (or Enetoi?).
We're either originally from Paphlagonia, or from Lusatia (Poland) and we may or may not be related to the Veneti of Gaul (Britanny) mentioned by none other than Julius Caesar (see detailed map online). Since we learned that a study of DNA haplogroups may shed light on these hypotheses, we launched our Venice DNA Project in 2008.
The idea for the project was born in 2004, after I read  an article on the Phoenicians in National Geographic magazine. I bounced around the idea with WPI faculty colleagues for a while, until my happenstance stumbling upon a brief mention of the Genographics project in Wired magazine in 2007, which lead to my decision to begin exploring the topic in 2008.  That fall, thanks to the enterprising team of WPI students, we began our collaboration in the Genographics Project, collecting our first sample from my mentor Count Marcello, and continuing the collection in the fall of 2009, with the last team of WPI students studying the Origins of Venice and its inhabitants.
You may also remember the big flurry of media attention that we inadvertently attracted to this project in conjunction with the Funeral for Venice of  We are hoping that the release of our results will quell any leftover smolders from that overblown controversy.  This past May, the Genographics project released the results of the DNA analyses conducted on the 156 Venetian cheek-swabs we had sent to the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.  After two years of work, we were finally able to look at the DNA evidence which Kyle faithfully tallied up for a first look at where we stand, his Canadianess betrayed by the use of French labels in the maps. Out of  the 156 samples we collected, 57 were not viewable on the Genographic site for one of two reasons: 34 were Invalid (not enough DNA?) and 23 others (labeled Faulty in pie chart) simply failed to show up on the site.  We have initiated an inquest on these issues and we are hoping to retrieve at least some of these unusable samples.  "In the end" (as Adrian is fond of saying), the total number of valid samples thus far is 99.  Two thirds of these (66 out 99) show the genetic pathway in the map above, which we are told is a very typical "European" trace (blue pie slice), which confirms that Venice has been a melting pot, rather than the home of a distinct gens. Ironically, my DNA (probably of Spanish origin), that of my brother-in-law Alberto Gallo (clearly a Gaul)  and Kyle Miller's (a Canadian of British descent) all had the same exact lineage, which we shared with the overwhelming majority of other participants as shown in the map at the top of the post.
 Of more interest to me are the two sets of samples which show a path through the Balcans (labeled "Greek" in pie) and perhaps the most intriguing one which I labeled Paphlagonian in the google chart, which looks like the map down here. Unfortunately, only 6 of our samples display this genealogical profile, which skirts all four of our main target areas: Trebizond, the Veneto, Britanny and the Baltic.  A DNA pattern that could reconcile all theories and references in the literature... hmmm!
While I was in Barcelona in June to visit Prof. David Comas, I perchance met a young Polish researcher, Krzyszof Rebala, who - by pure luck - happens to be focusing his attention on the Venedi of Poland, which he has thoroughly studied without finding any distinguishing trait to clearly separate them from other European populations.  So far then, the Venetians we sampled  do not seem to have any really striking DNA patterns nor do they seem to be related to the Wends of Lusatia, which paradoxically might give fuel to the controversial Venetic theory of a pre-celtic settlement of Veneti across the heart of Europe.
Since the Genographic project is slated to wrap up next summer, I discussed with Dr. Comas the options we have left to complete our research project.  Here is the plan I sketched out in Barcelona:
  1. Collect another 100 samples in small villages in the Veneto hinterland to seek out purer DNA strands for the ancient Veneti of NE Italy
  2. Collect 100 samples in Paphlagonia, near the Turkish city of Trebizond, with the help of Jeremy Chapman, whom I met in Istanbul in June
  3. Collect 100 samples in Brittany where the Armorican tribe of seafaring Veneti (aided by Asterix's own tribe, I am sure) put up a good fight against Caesar's navy in the battle of Morbihan
  4. Then match all these samples with the samples that Krzyszof has collected in Poland and see what, if any, match we may find across the four geographical areas.
I think these are challenging but interesting follow-ups that are worth pursuing, but the logistics are tough (and possibly costly).  We could definitely use some grant support to pull it out.  This may well be the mission we assign to this year's Origins team.  We shall see what happens.
More details on our results and on the final plans for this project in an upcoming post.
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