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The Story of "German" DNA

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

When people today think about the German people, they think about Germans from recent history. It may be the East/West German split, World War 1 or 2, or even Otto von Bismarck. Maybe people think of beer, pretzels and sausage. But German history extends much further back than the 150 years.

The first written records of a “German People” appeared with the Romans. These records date back to 100 BC.

Before humans (Homo sapiens) were in Germany, there were actually two other hominid species: Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. The first Neanderthal remains were uncovered in what is now Germany, in 1856. The first Homo heidelbergensis fossil was found in 1905.

Geneticists estimate that Neanderthal genes constitute about 2% of modern European and Asian DNA (to read about my Neanderthal DNA, click here). Scientists believe that humans interbred with Neanderthals on many different occasions, and we know that they had territory in what is now Germany. Homo heidelbergensis is considered to be the most recent common ancestor between modern humans (H. sapiens or H. s. sapiens) and Neanderthals. Many specimens assigned to H. heidelbergensis likely existed well after the modern human/Neanderthal split.

Human history in Germany started around 4600 BC, in the late Neolithic, after the last Ice Age. Anthropologists have dug up tools, structures, and garbage to figure out what life was like for early Germans. Two cultures overlapped in this early time period: the Rössen culture and the Funnelbeaker culture. Little is known about these cultures other than the pottery and tools they left behind. They used stone axes and knives, lived in houses made of clay and thatched roofs, and managed farms and domesticated animals.

This eventually gave way to what is now known as the Nordic Bronze Age. Anthropologists have found bronze items throughout Scandinavia that date back to this time. The strange thing about the bronze in these northern regions is that copper and tin are not common. Evidence suggests that mining activity near the Danube region in Germany produced these materials.

Around 750 BC, the Germanic tribes began to spread south, west, and east from the areas near Denmark. This continued until about 60 BC, when German tribes bumped into territory held by the Celts, Slavs, and, most importantly, the Romans.

The Romans first encountered Germanic tribes during the Gallic Wars (between 58 and 50 BC), and we get our first written records about the Germans from the Romans. Julius Caesar was in the process of conquering the Gauls in what is now France. During this campaign, he built a bridge across the Rhine river, but did not advance very far beyond it because he did not encounter any enemies. However, the Suebi, a group of Germanic tribes, would later attempt to capture the area to the west of the Rhine. Each time the Suebi attacked, Caesar’s forces rebuffed them. The repeated attacks got the attention of Caesar’s successor, Augustus.

In 7 AD, Emperor Augustus appointed Publius Quinctilius Varus as the first governor of Germania, the name the Romans gave to the region. Varus was known as a cruel ruler, who enacted high taxes and swiftly crucified rebels. In September, 9 AD, Varus received word from Arminius, a German prince and Roman citizen, that a revolt was growing to the West of the Rhine. Against the advice of another German noble, Varus followed Arminius to the supposed revolt, with 3 Roman legions in tow. Each Roman legion comprised around 1,000 to 1,500 men. The Cherusci, a German tribe led by Arminius, ambushed the legions during the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. The heavy forests and swamps in the region rendered Roman tactics useless, and all three legions were lost over the course of three days. When Varus realized that all hope was lost, he committed suicide. This ambush began a series of three wars with the Romans.

In 13 AD, Augustus appointed Germanicus (the name was granted posthumously) as commander of the Rhine, giving him control of nearly ⅓ of Rome’s forces. Germanicus waged three campaigns against the Germans over the span of 4 years, and had many successes. However, the new emperor, Tiberius, decided that the war with the Germans was too costly, and recalled Germanicus to Rome.

After these campaigns, Rome never set its sights on Germany again. It officially established the borders of Germania (Germania Magnus) along the Rhine and Danube rivers. This official stance continued until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Franks (a western German tribe) took advantage of the situation. In the space of about 80 years from the fall of Rome in 480 CE, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. They followed it up by conquering Italy in the 700s, forming all of Francia. In the process of all this conquering, they destroyed the Burgundians, the Gauls, and the Ostrogoths. They even got some land in the Iberian peninsula.

At the height of the Frankish Kingdom's power in 800 CE, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of Rome by Pope Leo III. This started the Frankish Kingdom on the path towards becoming the Holy Roman Empire.

The Frankish Kingdom became the Carolingian Empire in 800 CE. After a civil war in 843 CE, the Carolingian Empire was split between 3 different kingdoms (West, Middle, and East), one of which was crowned “king” over the others, but had no real authority over them. Western Francia split off from and became what we now know as France. Middle Francia was annexed by Eastern Francia and the Holy Roman Empire was founded in 888 CE. But, as my high school Social Studies teacher said: the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy, Roman, or an Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was actually a loose collection of principalities and territories. It was divided into four different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Germany, the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Kingdom of Burgundy.

Although the HRE existed in some form or another for nearly a thousand years, small portions of it kept breaking off from the greater whole. The HRE constituted a huge portion of Europe and each different location had its own individual needs and politics. Towards the end of the HRE’s life, two major powers began to emerge above it all: Austria and Prussia. Austria originated in the Kingdom of Bohemia to the southeast, while Prussia formed in the northeast.

The HRE, weakened by several major schisms, was not doing too well in the early 1800s. Napoleon Bonaparte completely destroyed the HRE and conquered most of Europe in under a decade. By this time however, the majority of my ancestors in the area had immigrated to the New World.

So it would appear that "German" DNA is more prevalent in the current European countries based upon the history. DNA is not something that can be defined by or contained within borders and obviously never has been.


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