Modern humans have been living in the Iberian Peninsula for many thousands of years. Before modern humans, the peninsula was inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years by other species of hominids. This all leads to a rich history that can get kind of complicated to keep track of from a DNA perspective.
My goal in sharing this information on this post is to help give you some ideas and historical context as to why you have Iberian Peninsula DNA showing up in your results. There is no one-size fits all answer that explains it for every test taker. You will have to look at your family tree, read about some history, and figure out what makes the most sense based on what you’ve learned. Sadly, many times none of us will know for sure.
Maybe someday we will have access to better technology that can reach further back in history and can tell us more conclusively about our ancestry. For example, take “junk DNA”. Scientists don’t know all the reasons why we have it, and it contains the DNA from our ancestors and their parasites (what?!) going back for millions of years. Scientists have learned a lot about this “junk DNA” (and it turns out to not be junk!) over the past few decades, and it is in part how they are able to provide us with ethnicity estimates. The nerd in me longs to know more. Alas, for now we must just try to learn as much as we can with the technology that we do have.
Remember that the DNA ethnicity estimates compare your DNA with people who live in the Iberian Peninsula today. That’s why it’s important to understand history behind how their DNA might have come to look like it does, and what that means for you.
The period in history that is the most relevant to those interested in understanding their DNA ethnicity results is the period of 500 A.D until modern times. Because of the location of the Iberian Peninsula – on the western edge of the European continent and very close to northern Africa, with relatively easy access to the rest of Europe by land and much of the world by water – the people of the Iberian Peninsula traveled, traded, and warred, changing their genetic makeup and spreading their DNA far and wide.
The first thing of note is to know that the Iberian Peninsula, which currently is where Portugal, Spain, and part of France is located, was not always divided this way politically. These countries did not consider themselves to be politically united in the way that we now know them until modern times. For example, France, Spain and Portugal still made major changes to their political boundaries well into the 1600-1700’s, not including changes made during the World Wars.
500 – 1000 A.D.
Conflict with the Visigothic, Byzantine, and Arab armies
The Visigoths were made up of people from the western Germanic tribes. These people populated Northern Europe, and are called Germanic because of the origins of the languages that they spoke. The people of the Iberian Peninsula were subjects of the Visigoths for about three hundred years. Most historians agree that the Visigoths weren’t really hands-on rulers and that they didn’t mix much with their subjects here. That said, it probably did happen upon occasion.
During the rule of the Visigoths came the Romans – under the control of the Roman Empire, which is also sometimes referred to as the Byzantine Empire. The Romans had previously been in control of much of the Iberian Peninsula before the Visigoths arrived, so there was lots of fighting and winning/losing of territory throughout the Visigoth rule. Finally, the Romans were able to temporarily retake control of a small part of the peninsula for less than 75 years.
After the death of a Visigoth king, there was a lot of political conflict on the peninsula and an North-African Arab commander entered Iberia with troops, capitalizing on the unrest. By 713, most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim/Arab control. This is an important aspect of history, and extremely relevant to those taking DNA ethnicity tests.
The Arab influence on the Iberian Peninsula has arguably been one of the most extreme outside influences in the history of Spain. There are thousands of words in the Spanish language that are cognates or have their origins in Arabic. Science, art, architecture, and more was all influenced dramatically by the Arabs in Iberia.
And even more important to our DNA story, there was intermarriage and exchange of genetic material between the original inhabitants of the peninsula and the Arabs. Even though the Arabs were basically kicked out of the region in 1492, there is a trace of North African DNA in many people from the Iberian Peninsula today. This means that if you have Iberian Peninsula DNA, there is a chance that you also inherited the North African DNA that your Iberian Peninsula ancestor likely had.
1492 A.D. – Modern Times
In 1492, there were an estimated 200,000 – 250,000 Jews living in Spain
Even though in 1492 there were only between 200,000-250,000 Jewish people living in Spain, it is important to note that only 200 years earlier, there were around twice that many (perhaps as many as 500,000). While Jews had historically been tolerated and sometimes even treated well in Spain, this changed drastically between 1300-1400 A.D. Many Jews were killed or exiled, and those who stayed were often pressured or forced to convert to Christianity.
This is important history, and it is also interesting from a DNA aspect. Many Spanish families don’t know about their lost Jewish heritage, and the same is true for many of the descendants of the Iberian Peninsula around the world.
Spanish and Portuguese Exploration
As most of you probably learned in school, Spain and Portugal were prolific producers of world explorers. Beginning in the late 15th century, many explorers, sailors, and soldiers from the Iberian peninsula traveled to many places around the world. Most important in our DNA story, however, are their trips to the “Americas”.
The Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought their crew and soldiers with them to explore the North and South American continents, eventually claiming much of those continents for their home countries. These groups of people mixed with the indigenous inhabitants of these “new” lands. For the next five hundred years, regular folks like you and me, usually suffering from economic hardship or political/religious persecution, decided to leave Spain and Portugal. These people started families and mixed with local communities North and South America.
This leads to discussion of the Spanish and Portuguese “diaspora”; basically those Spanish and Portuguese people and their descendants who now live all over the world. I’ve found some interesting facts about these folks which might get you thinking about your own DNA results:
- More than 100 million people across the world have Portuguese ancestors
- About 500 million people all over the world have Spanish ancestry (and more that don’t know it!)
- More than 700,000 Spaniards left Spain for Mexico during the colonial period – and hundreds of thousands more went to live in other Latin American countries. There has even been direct immigration from Spain to the United States.
- About 20% of modern Iberian Peninsula population has some Jewish DNA – meaning, if you inherited Iberian DNA, you might have also gotten your Jewish DNA from these ancestors, as well.
Even More Spanish and Portuguese Migration
The Spanish and Portuguese emigration to Latin America isn’t the only way that you could have ended up with DNA from these waves of migration.
- There are more than 2 million Filipinos with Spanish descent. If you have Filipino ancestry on either side of your family, you could have inherited Iberian (and North African) DNA through these ancestors.
- There are hundreds of thousands of people who live in India of Portuguese descent – so keep that in mind if you have Indian ancestors and are looking at your ethnicity
- Both Portugal and Spain had colonies in Africa, and there are thousands of Africans with Portuguese and Spanish ancestry.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every situation where Iberian Peninsula DNA was spread throughout the globe via migration or battle, but I do hope that it does give you something to think about and that it helps you research your family history.
Do you have Iberian Peninsula in your DNA and have no idea where it came from? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!