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1.5 Million Minus 2: DNA Testing Brings Ancestors Back from the Dead

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Every Armenian family has the same story: persecution, fear, robbery, rape, murder … genocide … and the unknown. They say there can never be closure without the ability to mourn over the grave of a loved one. The denial of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government surely hinders closure, but for the survivors, never knowing what had happened to those left behind or lost during the death marches into the Syrian desert remained an equally harmful open wound.

My maternal grandmother had four sisters. One rescued my grandmother from the six years she had been living as a slave and the two of them ultimately found their way to the United States. Another sister starved to death in an orphanage. The two remaining sisters, one 17 and one an infant, were sent to the Syrian desert with their mother, and none were ever heard from again.

Nayiri Arzoumanian, Sarah Aghjayan, and the author in Burunkishla, May 2013 (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian)

Each time I travel to Western Armenia, I meet hidden Armenians—“remnants of the sword”—and many are searching for relatives thought to have escaped to the United States or elsewhere. Unfortunately, most often all that is known is a name: Garabed, Mariam, etc. Much too vague to allow for any connection to be made, even in the rare case where a village of origin is known. Most don’t even know the village, as their mother or grandmother was plucked from the caravans and only knew they were from Kharpert or Palu or some other region.

A year and a half ago, I joined the Armenian DNA Project through Family Tree DNA. While I was interested in my ancient DNA and the migration of man out of Africa, what really motivated me was the hope of connecting with descendants thought murdered during the genocide. Possibly descendants of the sisters my grandmother never heard from after they were sent to the desert. I wanted to bring them back from the dead.

In DNA testing, relationships are measured in shared centiMorgans (cMs), a way to quantify the probabilities. Both the total shared cMs and the longest segment are considered when determining the most likely relationship between two people. Segments longer than 10 shared cMs are generally thought to be indicative of a common ancestor.

For example, through testing, it has been shown that grandchildren have shared cMs with their grandparent that range from 875-2,365, with an average of 1,760. At the same time, a person could have shared cMs of 236-1,301 with a great aunt or uncle. So, based solely on that, if you were to have shared cMs of 900 with someone, their relationship to you could be anywhere from a grandchild/grandparent to a first cousin, once removed.

When I first received my DNA results, there were a handful of people who were identified as distant relatives by Family Tree DNA—as 4th or 5th cousins. Our shared cM was generally in the range of 30-40, with the longest segment of between 10 and 15. I contacted a few of these people and our knowledge was too scant to determine with any certainty how we might be related. Regardless, the common ancestor was very distant.

Last summer, while traveling in Western Armenia with the Arzoumanian family who also happened to hail from my grandfather’s village of Burunkishla in the Boghazliyan district of Yozgat, we discussed our possible relationship. They decided to have their father, Hrair, tested. The results showed we were 2nd or 3rd cousins; our shared cM was 132 with numerous segments over 15 cM and the longest 30 cM. Clearly, we were very closely related, which was not a complete surprise, although it was exciting to finally confirm a previously unknown relationship.

Based on our combined knowledge of family history, we believe Hrair’s maternal grandmother was a sibling to one of my great-grandparents. Again, so much family history was lost during the genocide that it is impossible to determine exactly at this time.

Then, about a month ago, the moment I had been hoping for: I received a hit on my DNA that was either a 1st or 2nd cousin, and it was someone living in Turkey! For perspective, our total shared cMs were 400 with a longest common segment of 90. This was a much closer relative and someone I knew nothing about. Could it be a descendant of my grandmother’s sisters?

I sent an e-mail to the man and waited impatiently for four days. Then, the response: The mother of the man tested was known to be Armenian. I was conversing with his son and this is the story he told.

In 1915, two sisters from Maden begin the march to certain death. The older of the sisters is a beautiful and clever young girl. Along the way, a cavalry officer desires to marry her. She agrees to do this in order to save her little sister. In fact, she demands that the younger sister be protected and live with them. Thus begins their new lives in Chermoug as Muslims.

While living with her older sister, a Muslim man sees the younger sister and falls in love. They marry and live in Chungush. Soon, three children are born. However, the husband dies young. The dead man’s brother marries his Armenian widow sister-in-law to care for his orphaned niece and nephews, and they have three additional sons together. The man whose DNA was tested was a son from this second marriage.

The older sister would have a son who died young. She died soon thereafter, leaving no surviving offspring.

Nevart (3rd from the left) with Angel (2nd from the right)

While the story would seem to match what might have become of my grandmother’s sisters, the places and names did not match that side of my family. Instead, the names of the parents of those two orphan Armenian girls matched the names of my father’s great-grandparents. In addition, my great-grandmother was born in Maden.

I wrote the story of my great-grandmother, Nevart Antreassian, in an article on the Georgetown Girls. Nevart’s sister, Angel, also survived and came to the United States. 25 years ago, when I first started researching my family history, I spoke to Angel’s husband, Khoren Krikorian, and an aunt about what was known of the family. I do not know how Angel survived 1915, but it was most likely through an orphanage in Kharpert, since in 1920 she graduated from Yeprad Varjaran. Around 1922, she left for Lebanon in the final wave of missionaries, orphans, and other desperate remnants.

As for my great-grandmother, Nevart, by the time of these events she was already married and living in Diyarbakir with children of her own. Her husband conscripted into the Ottoman army and presumed dead, Nevart endured the march to Aleppo with her two young children.

In looking through my folder from 25 years ago, I found a page of handwritten notes from a phone conversation with my aunt about Nevart’s family. It was sparse, fragments here and there: father was a horseshoer, etc.

Then, two words written at the bottom: “another sister.” In talking with my parents, they knew nothing of this, but of course so much time has gone by. But what is now known is that the woman in question was my great-grandmother’s sister.

Lost sister of Nevart and Angel

So many questions remain and most likely will never be answered.

Why the mention of only one sister? Could the older sister really have been the mother trying to protect her daughter? How could Angel have been in Kharpert until 1922 and not known her sister was alive in Chungush? Was this a situation, like so many others, where after forced marriage, conversion to Islam, and children, these “remnants of the sword” considered themselves dead to their Armenian families and were treated as such by the Armenian community?

Nevart and Khachig Garabedian

Not surprisingly, my newfound relatives in Turkey have another Armenian grandmother in the family. She was born in the village of Havav in Palu and as late as the 1930’s she was still in correspondence with her brother in New York. Based on a letter written in Ottoman Turkish in 1934, I have identified this family as well.

It is said that the two Armenian girls, now sisters-in-law, were very close and their families’ love for them is evident.

Angel and Khoren Krikorian

Our mutual excitement at having found lost relatives after 100 years knows no bounds. Over the past month, we have been sharing pictures and stories and anxiously await the day when we can meet in person. Interestingly, based on where and when I have traveled through Western Armenia, it seems we know some of the same people and may have actually been together without ever knowing our family connection.

The people in this story remain victims of genocide, but they no longer are tallied in the dead. The 1.5 million has been reduced by 2.

For those wishing to learn more about the Armenian DNA Project, visit https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/armeniadnaproject/about/background.

26 Comments on 1.5 Million Minus 2: DNA Testing Brings Ancestors Back from the Dead

  1. George, some really good work. The photo of Nevart and Khachig Garabedian was taken in Reading, Mass. in the early 1950s. Nevart was Khachig’s second wife. They ran a small grocery store.

  2. avatar Jerry Mikaelian // September 4, 2015 at 4:52 pm // Reply

    Bravo, George!

  3. avatar Juan Carlos Boyadji // September 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm // Reply

    The story of lost family members, some of whom were taken by muslims and whose destiny remains unknown to this day, also pervades my family. My maternal grandmother was also born in Burungush (as I recall her pronounce it), in Yozgat.

  4. avatar Juan Carlos Boyadji // September 4, 2015 at 5:21 pm // Reply

    The story of lost family pervades our history. Now, finding family lost after so many years is almost miraculous. My late grandmother was also born in Burungush (as she pronounced it), in Yozgat.

  5. Additionally, It is my understanding that Khoren and Angel were the connection between Nevart and Khachig.

  6. Harb, how do you know the family, are you related?

    George

  7. This IS truly miraculous. I am hoping that someone in the Greek community has the determination to use the same tools you did to uncover lost relatives in Turkey as well.
    I know of at least one Pontic Greek family who HAS a “Turkish” Muslim branch now living outside of Trebizond. Their last names are the same, except they are Turkish and Greek versions of the same original Greek name. Tragic.
    You George, are doing the BEST work possible to restore these people to their original Armenian Christian identity. Godspeed George, and continued success!!!

  8. This is absolutely fascinating! I am going to sign up my dad to do DNA testing now. Also George, thank you for posting the Tomarza church’s baptism records. Our family is from Tomarza and the name Sahag is a family name, which I think is the name of the priest from the early 20th century who performed the baptisms.

  9. “While I was interested in my ancient DNA and the migration of man out of Africa…”

    Sorry George, this is what I call mixing scientific data with pseudo-scientific philosophy, and why I am viewing the ‘Armenian DNA project’ with suspicion. After listening to the lecture at the Library of Congress about Armenian DNA (where the same above claim was made), I must say I was NOT impressed. The contradictory conclusions and claims by the journalist-presenter spoke for itself, it seems “western politics” has a prominent place in this project.

    • avatar Random Armenian // September 9, 2015 at 10:48 pm //

      And what exactly is western about genetics today Hagop? What is the issue with the out-of-Africa migration?

      I assume you have a background in science and specifically biology and genetics.

    • avatar Random Armenian // September 10, 2015 at 10:01 pm //

      “While I was interested in my ancient DNA and the migration of man out of Africa…”

      Sorry George, this is what I call mixing scientific data with pseudo-scientific philosophy, ”

      What does this mean? What exactly is the pseudo-science you’re referring to?

    • Wasn’t it clear that I don’t believe the “everything came from Africa” theory? I don’t believe that all humans “started out in Africa” because in the first place there is no evidence of it, not scientifically, not culturally, not technologically and not anything else. Next, being an Armenian, I am convinced that at least we as Armenians originated in Ancient Armenia. Why am I convinced? Because, besides that the Bible makes clear the re-birth of humanity started in Ancient Armenia, all present-day traces of advanced Human culture and civilization points in that general direction.

      In regards to “science” I don’t give much weight to claims of what happened “a million years ago” as if those making such claims were there and made a personal observation as to what transpired. To me that is more speculation than science, and this “everything came out of Africa” business is in that same category. That’s the reason it is more political and/or philosophical than “scientific”. The mentality is, “here is a scientific school of thought” and if you do not conform to it, then you must be an unscientific, crazy person. Same thing if you don’t believe in evolution. This is the same technique used by the “mainstream media”. If you don’t gulp down everything they feed you, “you must be some kind of conspiracy theorist nutcase”.

      Even though I don’t necessarily take this following story as “fact” either, here is one piece for you to ponder, and it is only to present/support as an example of what I said above…

      http://www.ancient-origins.net/human-origins-science/human-skull-challenges-out-africa-theory-001283

      The point is, in real science, nothing is cast in stone. Did Humans originate in Africa? Maybe, maybe not. Did Human Civilization originate in Armenia with proto-Armenians? My opinion, YES.

    • avatar Random Armenian // September 15, 2015 at 10:41 pm //

      Yes there is scientific evidence. Why do you think scientists around the world subscribe to it.

      And if you’re going bring the Bible into a science topic then there is nothing else to discuss.

      ps. you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. sorry to see someone fall for such new age stuff.

    • “yes there is scientific evidence”

      No, there isn’t. There is scientific philosophy and theory mixed with politics.

      You have obviously failed to understand my post. There is nothing “new age” about that article and Greek researcher. It is all about politics. And if you know anything about science at all, you would accept that in science there is no proof of anything, only verification until other evidence is uncovered. And if you are an Atheist, that’s your business, but don’t go around telling your own new-age tales about “everything in the Bible is false” as if you are the bearer of truth. Some of the greatest, maybe most, scientists in history have been religious. The Bible, was and remains the most important book in Human history. Deal with it.

    • “Why do you think scientists around the world subscribe to it.”

      If that is true, it is because as in other fields, “most scientists” are the sheeple that follow the master, and the money. Challenging the status-quo could mean getting cut off from funding. As a ‘scientist’, you should know this shouldn’t you?

    • avatar Random Armenian // September 17, 2015 at 10:17 am //

      Please Hagop, don’t talk about this complicated field of science of which you don’t know anything about.

      You’re the one mixing religion and science here. The Bible stories are just that, stories. There are religious biologists who subscribe to evolution and out of Africa theory without feeling their faith threatened.

      And what exactly is the politics that’s mixed in here with out of Africa theory? Why do scientists subscribe to it?

      I’m sorry but you’re flat out wrong in your understanding of how science works. One can piece together quite a lot with evidence found in the ground and there is evidence for it which you can find any science textbook on the subject.

      The word games you’re playing here is the same that other’s with strong opinions play when they feel threatened by science. They attack science as political, dogmatic and unwilling to accept their ideas. But such people do not truly understand how scientists came to the conclusions they came to.

      “If that is true, it is because as in other fields, “most scientists” are the sheeple that follow the master, and the money. Challenging the status-quo could mean getting cut off from funding. As a ‘scientist’, you should know this shouldn’t you?”

      As a person who has a science background, that is not true. That’s a cheap and cynical argument based on your ignorance of the subject. Scientists are skeptical people who are open to new ideas as new evidence builds up over time. History of science is full of examples where theories have been changed or even some ideas discarded because accumulation of evidence points in a different direction.

      “Some of the greatest, maybe most, scientists in history have been religious.”
      Yes, but they have not mixed religion with their science. That’s the hallmark of a good scientists. Heck, there are even Vatican priests who are involved in astronomical research and publishing papers. And they are welcomed by other Astronomers as fellow scientists. Whether what science has shown us about the universe thus far, reinforces their faith or questions it is a deeply personal issue and not the concern of science.

      “The Bible, was and remains the most important book in Human history.”

      Not in the scientific sense.

      So, did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time ;)

    • {[…]all present-day traces of advanced Human culture and civilization points in that general direction [Armenia].}

      Right on, Hagop. Most recent evidence of it is offered in “Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods. The Temple of Watchers and the Discovery of Eden”, a 2014 account on archeological excavations in Göbekli Tepe (Arm. Portasar), in Turkey, in which the author, British archeologist and writer Andrew Collins, presents convincing argumentation for his hypothesis that the Armenian Highlands were the cradle of human civilization and the Garden of Eden was in the Mush Plain of the historical Armenian province of Taron.

    • {So, did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time ;)}

      So, has the so-called “missing link” between man and the apes found? ;)

  10. avatar Laurence Kueffer // September 7, 2015 at 1:52 pm // Reply

    DNA Ancestry Test Kits can be ordered, on the Internet, from Ancestry.com or 23andMe for $99, available at the same price from either company. In my opinion, the best way is to order kits from both companies, provided that there isn’t any budget constraint issues. Our genetic information is obtained from our saliva sample, quite conveniently from spitting into the test tube, which arrives by express mail. After spitting into the test tube, simply ceil it closed, repackage it in the package they provide, and mail it to them, for testing. No blood test is required — only a saliva sample for the DNA ancestry test.

    • avatar Laurence Kueffer // September 9, 2015 at 10:04 pm //

      I see that the Armenian DNA Project has made it a mission to give Armenian ancestral origins a top priority. It provides DNA Tests that are custom designed, either for direct paternal line testing, or direct maternal line testing. Anyone is welcome to join the Armenian DNA Project, provided that there are grounds to make a claim for direct Paternal Armenian Ancestry, Maternal Armenian Ancestry, or Both Paternal and Maternal Armenian Ancestry.

      I too will join the Armenian DNA Project, as a half blooded Armenian, because my maternal ancestry is 100% Armenian.

      George Aghajyan, the author of the article, unveiled wonderful discoveries about his hidden ancestral links to blood relatives, from his diligent research, as well as by joining the Armenian DNA Project. It demonstrates how Armenian Diaspora ancestral links to Armenian ancestry, in Turkey, can be investigated that way.

    • avatar Kersam Mavian // September 10, 2015 at 3:11 am //

      Laurence, the Armenian DNA Project is hosted at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). You cannot join it if you get tested at Ancestry or 23andme.

      You need to join FTDNA at http://www.familytreedna.com

  11. avatar Agavni Chakmakian // September 7, 2015 at 9:12 pm // Reply

    Hello George,
    I believe you found another relative in me. My father’s side is from Yozgat, Boghazkoy as well. We recently found another relative from my mom’s side and planning to have DNA test. Please, get in touch.

  12. There seems to be some confusion over the Armenian DNA project and the DNA tests themselves. A few things to note. First, you can take the DNA test without signing up for the Armenian DNA project. The Armenian DNA project is concerned with the haplogroup origins of Armenians. So, that is limited to the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests.

    If you are solely interested in locating family, then you only need take the Family Finder test ($99 on Family Tree DNA). There are other companies you can take the test with and I assume there are pluses and minuses to each, but the major limitation is that the companies do not share their data. So, you would only find family that submitted their DNA to that company’s database. There are third party places to upload data from all the companies (e.g. gedmatch), but again people would have to do it. Since the Armenian DNA project exists on Family Tree DNA, that would seem to make the most sense that the majority of Armenians are submitting through them and thus finding family would be the most likely.

    Finally, once your DNA is in the system, you can always choose to order more tests without having to resubmit. So, you can start by ordering the Family Finder test and order other tests later if you decide that is something you want to do.

    George Aghjayan

    • avatar Random Armenian // September 10, 2015 at 2:58 pm //

      “There are other companies you can take the test with and I assume there are pluses and minuses to each”

      What is the level of quality and reliability of companies in this field? Are there errors in such genetic tests? And are there differences in quality between companies offering these services?

  13. avatar Steve Elmasian // December 13, 2015 at 6:08 am // Reply

    George, Just read this article. excellent as always. I had chills during certain parts. Job well done as always.

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