Have you taken a DNA test and saw that you had Iberian Peninsula ancestry? This article talks about what that might mean for your family’s history.
The Iberian Peninsula, consisting primarily of modern-day Spain and Portugal, is one of the more geographically isolated parts of Europe. Not only is it the southwestern-most corner, but the Pyrenees Mountains are a formidable barrier.
Despite this isolation, Iberian DNA made its way around the world during the Age of Discovery, when both Spain and Portugal sent out vast fleets to trade in far ports and claim distant lands. Sea travel also brought a unique blend of people to the Iberian Peninsula over the centuries, forming the distinct genetic character of the region.
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Iberian Peninsula is connected to the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains. While the Pyrenees are not as formidable as the Alps, they are more than enough to prevent casual travel. But they were not enough to save the region from slow migration, as well as multiple invasions over the centuries.
Many people made their way into Iberia by boat, too. Its vast Mediterranean shoreline is impossible to miss, even for the earliest seafarers. Gibraltar, the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, is separated from North Africa by only nine miles of water.
Remains of human ancestors dating back more than a million years old have been found in Iberia, and there is plenty of evidence of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon occupation. By the Bronze Age, several different cultures inhabited the region.
Early Celts arrived by land, and Phoenicians by sea, to blend with the local populations. By the seventh or eighth century BC, Greek sailors began establishing colonies along the Mediterranean coast, and were the first to call the area Iberia. They named it for the Iber River, known today as the Ebro. A century or so later, the Carthaginians arrived.
While many of the original tribes and cultures who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula have vanished or been absorbed into other groups, the Basques are the exception. The Basques were already established before the Celts first arrived, and still survive to this day. Their ethnicity, both cultural and genetic, is distinct from other groups in Iberia.
The “Basque Country” can be found in the western Pyrenees Mountains in both northern Spain and southern France. They carry distinct genetic DNA markers which have been dated back 4,000 years or more. Because of that, some genealogical DNA test results will list Basque ethnicity separate from Iberian Peninsula ethnicity.
The Romans arrive
The Carthaginians had long been the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean, but by the third century BC the Romans began challenging them. The Punic Wars that followed lasted more than 100 years.
Carthage relied on Iberia for manpower and resources for its military. Most famously, Hannibal led an army of Iberian soldiers and mercenaries through the mountains to attack northern Italy and threaten Rome itself. Despite several victories, the Romans emerged victorious. The Carthaginian colonies in Iberia became a Roman province named Hispania.
With a solid foothold on the peninsula, the Romans pushed their way inland and eventually conquered most of the region. Latin replaced most of the native languages, with Basque being the notable exception. Over the centuries, Latin evolved into several regional languages including Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, and Aragonese, among others.
Arrival of the Visigoths
The Hun invasion into eastern and central Europe, combined with other factors, set off the Migration Period. This period began about 400 AD and continued for the next four hundred years.
Germanic invaders such as the Vandals and Visigoths swept through northern Italy. The Visigoths in particular kept going, fighting their way into southern France and the Iberian Peninsula. At its height, the Visigoth Kingdom stretched from central France to Gibraltar.
However, the local populations survived and absorbed the Goths. The Gothic language and customs vanished almost as quickly as they had arrived. They did, however, leave their genetic heritage behind. The Kingdom’s leaders adopted Christianity in the late sixth century and spread the religion throughout Iberia as well.
The Roman and Byzantine Empires controlled much of North Africa, but by the end of the seventh century their influence was fading. A Muslim empire from Syria, the Umayyad Caliphate, pushed their way across North Africa, absorbing the local populations as they went. The combination of Berbers indigenous to the area and the Arab minority who led them became known as the Moors.
The Moors crossed the nine-mile gap between North Africa and Gibraltar in 711 AD. They pushed their way through the Iberian Peninsula, driving out the Visigoths and introducing Islam to the region. While much of the local population accepted Islam and the Arabic language, many others continued to speak Latin and follow Christianity.
Within a few decades, the Moors began to lose ground in the north, and gradually retreated to the south. However, it took more than 700 years before the northern Christian kingdoms finally managed to reclaim the entire peninsula.
1492 and the Age of Discovery
Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II were married in 1469, uniting the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Leon. This union created España, and set the stage for the modern nation of Spain. The union gave Isabella and Ferdinand II the forces they needed to drive the Muslims off out of Iberia. The final decisive battle was fought at Grenada in 1492.
Two other major events took place in 1492. The Alhambra Decree expelled the Jews from Spain. The king and queen also funded a voyage by Christopher Columbus to chart a new course to the West Indies. While he never made it to the Indies, Columbus found something much larger.
Both Spain and Portugal led the way in exploring the newly located areas. Colonies were established throughout the so-called New World, carrying their languages, culture, and genes with them.
Iberian Peninsula ethnicity today
With 500 years of stability, the genetic ethnicity of the Iberian Peninsula has become relative distinct from other regions. It is most commonly found in Spain and Portugal, but can also be found spread throughout the world:
- South and Central America
- The Canary Islands
- The Philippines
- Northwest Africa – parts of Morocco and Algeria in particular
- Southern France – especially in the Basque region
Too much Iberian ethnicity in your results? If you have Jewish ancestors, they may be ones who fled Spain in 1492 and carried strong Iberian genes with them. Many ended up in France or the British Isles. Likewise, Muslim ancestors who lived in Spain for centuries left at the same time for North Africa and the Middle East.
Also, because they share some common ancestors, Germanic, Italian, and North African ancestors may make your Iberian ancestry look a bit larger than it really is.
Not enough Iberian ethnicity? Keep in mind that your Iberian ancestors may show up as French, German, Italian, North African, or Middle Eastern if those genetic lines were particularly strong in your Iberian family tree.
Even people who live in the Iberian Peninsula today may show up on a DNA test as only 50% Iberian ethnicity.
A useful tool
Genealogical DNA testing can help you find your ancestors, but it will never be 100% accurate. People have moved around far too much, intermarried, conquered and been conquered to ever say “this person must have come from here.”
But if you have a significant Iberian Peninsula ethnicity, more than 2-3%, there is an excellent chance some of your ancestors lived there in a genealogical timeframe. This can provide you with a place to focus your research.