Saturday, November 26, 2016

How Italian is the average Italian?

I recently read an article published by AncestryDNA stating that the average person in the United Kingdom is only 37 percent British (Anglo Saxon). He is also 22 pecent Irish (Celt) and 20 percent Western European (mostly French and German).

My brother’s DNA test showed that he is 37 percent Italian/Greek and 34 percent British—so he is almost as British as a person in the U.K. But the article makes me wonder, how much Italian DNA does the average Italian have? (Note: It appears that changed its Italian/Greek designation to Southern European some time in 2017). 

My brother and half a dozen cousins have been tested, and their results show an average percentage of Italian/Greek DNA at around 30 percent. At first this surprised me, because we’ve always considered our generation to be half Italian. I’ve traced our Spadoni line back to the same rural location in Tuscany to the early 1400s, and the Seghieri line (our grandmother) to the late 1200s. All of their marriages seemed to be to people with regional names as well: Marchi, Cinelli, Tognarelli, Galli, Mariani, Di Vita, Capocchi, Montanelli, Petrocchi, Bellandi, Del Tredici, Iacomini, Notari. All of these names have had long histories in the Valdinievole community.

Note that the categories are, of necessity, pretty broad. Great Britain
crosses over with Western Europe. Italy/Greece includes parts of Western
Europe and continues east to include much of the former Yugoslavia.
So why wouldn’t we be 50 percent Italian, or at least close to it? The answer lies in the fact that even people who have lived in Italy for centuries are not 100 percent Italian, just as the people in the U.K. are not all British. None of my relatives in Italy have had their DNA tested, so I don’t know what their percentages would be, but I do know one of my Facebook friends, Florian, is 100 percent Italian by genealogical standards, and his proven family roots go back to the late 1500s. Yet his DNA test showed him to be 72 percent from Italy/Greece, 10 percent Ireland, 7 percent Great Britain and the rest a mixture of other places.

Another Italian Facebook user, Giuseppe Pallucchini, wrote that he was initially surprised to find that his Italian/Greek DNA showed up at only 80 percent. He also said the explanatory material he received with his test explained that ‟a typical Italian native has 72 percent Italian/Greek.

Italy has been invaded and colonized by Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Spaniards, Catalans, Longobards—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Being centrally located in the Mediterranean, Italians have traded with numerous civilizations and even imported slaves to mine metals and marble, build towers and cathedrals, and fight in their armies and in gladiatorial battles.

I’ve also noticed that many Italians show a high percentage of Western Europe DNA, and that Ancestry doesn’t try to distinguish between the various Western European countries because the people have intermingled there for so many centuries. With all this movement in a small geographic area, it makes me wonder what the geneticists consider a true Italian to be. The answer us that it comes down to a somewhat subjective judgment, even if the criteria is based on scientific statistics.

Further inquiries of Italian Facebook friends indicate that Northern Italians may be more likely to considered Western European, while Southern Italians show a greater percent of what now calls Southern European (formerly Italian/Greek).

It is certainly more than DNA that makes a person Italian, since Italy is a culture as well as a geographical region. We’d like to believe that science will make everything simple, that we can know that a person from France is French, a person from Ireland is Irish and a person from Poland is Polish—but that’s not how it works. Boundaries change, people move and intermarry. Centuries pass, and countries change names and rulers. Cultures inherit characteristics from the people who live nearby. All these factors should be considered when viewing one’s DNA results.

Many would be well served by not worrying about the word Italian,’  said Dennis McKinnon, an Italian-American from Boston. DNA is very different. If you are of Italian descent, youll be a blend of all Mediterranean trade routes and military campaigns.

At best, DNA testing is a way to investigate one’s roots and spark a greater interest in history. It’s a complicated world, growing ever more diverse, and while knowing where one comes from is important and interesting, ideally it should help us to live better lives in the here and now.

For more on genetic diversity, read: Genetic diversity in the DNA testing of Italians should be expected.


  1. My father's family is from Northern Italy, my mother's family from Northern Germany. My DNA test revealed 36% Italian/Greek, 29% Great Britain, 15% Western Europe and a small amount of Eastern Europe, Scandinavian,Ireland, Finland and even the Iberian peninsula. Interesting blend!

  2. Interesting article. I got tested "hoping" I was Italian! On my first visit in 2002, I felt a sense of being home for the first time in my life. Since then, my wife and I visit at least one a year. We've learned la bella lingua. We make pasta every night before deciding what to cook. I get the humor, love the movies, and get homesick just thinking about Umbrian olive oil. I have more friends in Spoleto than here in Nashville. However, my DNA results show that I have only trace amounts of Mediterranean heritage (mostly Scotch-Irish). Then I look at my step-son, and admit he has grown up to be just like me. In the nature-vs-nurture debate, Italy has nurtured me well. Grazie Mama!

  3. my DNA test came up as 91 percent italian

  4. my DNA also came up as 91 % italian , but my ancestors live high up in the mountains , so it is unlikely their genes mixed with turkish or arab raiders , infact most from the hills killed children from women who were raped by invaders , to maintain purity

    1. My DNA came up 100% italian. My family ancestors were from southern italy (avellino). So that makes sense.


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