We started 2mi3museum project based on the stories told in our family. We were able to trace the origins of our family back to the mid-19th century, by exploring testimonies of family members, and by meticulously searching Ottoman documents. The earliest ancestor we found was Ioannis Vafiadis, born in Chios in the 1850s. This was the oldest name and place we could ever find, but we needed more. Thankfully, with the help of science, we were able to delve even further into the past! In the beginning of 2021, Leonidas - Romanos Davranoglou (Vafiadis), who is a biologist and entomologist, tested himself with a DNA kit. As he was a member of our Vafiadis family and we share the same ancestors, he was able to trace the origins of the Vafiadis family. Now we leave the rest of our page to the precious words of Leonidas. He will inform us about the DNA origins of the Vafiadis family: A story of migration and perseverance…
The DNA origins of the Vafiadis: a story of migration and perseverance
Genealogy and historical records can tell us a lot about the lives of our ancestors, but they usually take us back only a few centuries at most. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have extensive documents that trace particular families down to the 10th century A.D. However, in the Balkans, where records are scarce prior to the Ottoman era, it is particularly challenging for most of us to trace our ancestors’ story for more than a couple of centuries back in time.
DNA testing has solved this problem, as it serves as an invaluable tool that can inform us about where our ancestors lived centuries and millennia ago, their cultural and ethnic affiliations, and the migratory routes they took across the world. The genetics of every person alive today can tell us incredible stories of migration, culture, ethnic shifts, love, and violence. In this article, we are going to narrate the story of the Vafiadis family, using the latest DNA evidence.
Molecular DNA genealogy basics:
An indispensable tool for tracking down paternal lines deep in time is the Y chromosome. DNA is packed into distinct units called chromosomes. Men have a Y chromosome, which is transmitted unchanged from father to son, and accounts for 1% of a man’s total DNA. Because there are very few differences on the Y chromosome with every succeeding generation, a particular paternal line will remain largely intact throughout the centuries, and can be traced back to people who lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Therefore, all the descendants of a particular man will always share largely the same Y chromosome DNA, even after millennia.
For example, if a sub-Saharan African man emigrates to China, his descendants will intermarry with the local population, and after a few generations, they will be genetically 99% Chinese. However, even after 2.000 years, his male descendants will always carry his African Y chromosome genetic signature, which will tell us where he came from.
In this article, we used the latest tools of genetics to find the paternal origin of the Vafiadis, through a study of the Y-chromosome of their male descendants.
Figure 1. Y chromosomes are transmitted from father to son only, and connect their male descendants even after thousands of years. Women do not have a Y chromosome.
Out of Africa: Where to Now?
Humans left Africa in at least three successive waves, the first starting about 50.000 years ago. Around 24.000 B.C., certain hunter gatherer populations lived around lake Baikal in Siberia. These people were called Ancient North Eurasians, and contributed their genes to today’s Europeans, native Americans, people of the Caucasus, and to a lesser extent to Middle Easterners and East Asians. It is in these Ancient North Eurasians, that the paternal line of most modern Europeans, including our family, can trace their origins.
These people migrated westward through the vast forests of Eurasia, meeting various peoples, such as the ancestors of the speakers of Uralic languages (e.g. Finnish, Hungarian), exchanging ideas and words. During their journey, they mixed with the more Western hunter-gatherer groups that lived there.
The Birth & Spread of the Indo-European Languages:
By at least 5000 B.C. (perhaps earlier), these hunter gatherers had reached the Pontic-Eurasian steppe in what is today southern Russia and Ukraine. There, they encountered other hunter gatherer groups, who were distantly related to tribes of the Caucasus. We do not know much about that period, but one thing is certain: the Siberian invaders outcompeted the local Caucasian males and stole their wives. By this violent mixing, a new group was formed: the first Indo-Europeans, who carried the ancient male lineage of most of today’s Europeans, including that of our family.
For centuries, the first Indo-Europeans had complex social and trading interactions with nearby farming communities, who were the dominant group in Neolithic Asia Minor and Europe. At some point, the Indo-Europeans acquired horses from a Central Asian population. This eventually led to a major technological innovation, that is, the invention of the chariot, which gave some Indo-European groups the upper hand in war and transport – the nearby farmers seem to have lacked both horses and chariots. However, whether the possession of horses triggered the very first Indo-European expansions is debated.
This innovation completely changed their lifestyle, which allowed them to live as nomadic herders, in contrast to the more sedentary farming populations, who had to rely on more local resources.
Around 3400 B.C., peaceful co-existence with the surrounding populations ended for unknown reasons, and the Indo-Europeans started to spread in several successive waves from the steppe to other areas: some went to Central Europe and then to the North (leading to the formation of the Baltic, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and other languages), others went South, forming the Greek, Phrygian, and Armenian languages, and others conquered India, forming the Sanskrit language. All these languages – from Europe to India, trace their ultimate origin to the nomadic herding population of southern Russia, hence the name: Indo-European.
Figure 2. Facial reconstruction of a Bronze Age Indo-European skeleton of an elite man from the Pontic-Eurasian steppe. The earliest presence of our lineage has been found in his group, which we refer to as the Yamnaya people. Skin, eye, and hair colour were based on his genome. Copyright by Philip Edwin.
Figure 3. Horse domestication and the chariot were key events for Indo-Europeans, which allowed them to expand across Eurasia. For these reasons, the horse had a key role in early Indo-European religion, as can be seen in this bronze statue from the Bronze Age of Denmark. Source
Figure 4. The Indo-Europeans spread from the Pontic-Eurasian steppe of southern Russia towards Europe, Central and South Asia, spreading their languages and genes. Source
The reasons behind this mass migration are poorly understood, with many theories being proposed, such the collapse of farming societies by plague, soil exhaustion, or the breakup of once peaceful political ties between the two groups. The steppe migrant invaders comprised primarily of men, perhaps seeking new fortunes, glory, and women, which may not have been readily available in their homeland. However, this mass invasion consisted of women as well, which represented about a third of the migrant population.
While most Indo-European steppe invaders spread from Central Europe to the North, as well as to the West, reaching as far as the Iberian Peninsula, the group our ancestor belonged to moved towards the Pannonian basin and the Carpathians (modern day Hungary), sometime in the Bronze age (starting between 2700-2200 B.C., perhaps even earlier). Their descendants subsequently continued their journey to the North-Central Balkans (modern Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina), where they perpetuated the history of violence that the human race has repeated countless of times: they killed many of the local farmers, and took their wives captive. This mixing led to the creation of new cultural and linguistic groups that are identifiable in classical antiquity, such as the Illyrians, the Pannonians, and the Daco-Moesians, among others.
Early to Late Antiquity, and the Origins of the Albanians:
These closely related peoples, such as the Illyrians, Daco-Moesians, and Dardanians (the last two probably belonging to the same cultural group) interacted with the ancient Greeks for centuries, and many of the Illyrians became bilingual in Greek by the Hellenistic times. When the Romans conquered the ancient Balkans, the southern tribes maintained both their native tongues, as well as Greek speech, while the more northern ones incorporated many Roman words in their language, some becoming almost entirely Latinized. This linguistic divide is known as the Jireček Line. Below this line, people were Greek speakers; above it, they spoke Latin.
Figure 5. The Jireček Line, dividing the ancient Roman world into Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking zones. The ancestors of early Albanians were located above this line, in the Latin-speaking zone. Source.
Based on linguistics, it is most likely that the Albanian language originates from these more northern Daco-Moesian/Dardanian tribes who were situated above the Jireček Line, as up to 40% of the Albanian language has Latin roots. We do not know where exactly the direct ancestor of the Albanians (and the Vafiadis family) lived in. However, based on linguistics, we do know that in Roman times, they were located somewhere around modern-day Kosovo, Serbia, North Macedonia, and perhaps northern Albania. Some circles suggest an Albanian-Illyrian connection, although historical, toponymic and linguistic data make this scenario unlikely. It is clear that the early Albanians were in a zone of Latin speech, and not a Greek one, like most of the southern Illyrians. They witnessed major historical events of that time, such as the nearby Illyrian revolt and the founding of Rome’s new capital, Constantinople. Many Roman emperors came from these Daco-Moesian tribes, such as Constantine the Great, Theodosius, Justinian, Julian the Apostate, and Belisarius. Most of the military legions of the Eastern Roman Empire consisted largely of Illyrian and Daco-Moesian soldiers. Remarkably, ancient DNA studies have found our paternal lineage in Romanised soldiers from the ancient cities of Timacum Minus and Viminacium, in the Roman province of Moesia Superior (modern day Serbia).
Figure 6. Many of Rome’s foremost Emperors were from a Romano-Moesian background, such as the founder of Constantinople, Constantine the Great (left), who was born in Naissus, modern day Niš, Serbia, and Justinian (right), from Tauresium (possibly modern day Taor, North Macedonia).
The 5th and 6th centuries A.D. witnessed the invasions of new peoples coming from the North to Southern Europe. In the Balkans, the primary invaders where the Slavs, along with Goths, Avars, and Alans, who conquered most of the Roman lands in the central-west Balkans, enslaving and exterminating most of the local population. The barbarian invasions prevented early Albanians from becoming fully latinised linguistically, and likely also reduced their population to very small numbers. It is during this tumultuous period that we can locate the dominant paternal lines of the few surviving Albanians, and consequently, the paternal line of the Vafiadis family as well.
Our likely Daco-Moesian/Dardanian ancestors survived the raids of the Slavs by seeking refuge in the mountains of northern Albania and Kosovo, and quickly arose to prominence, probably due to their military might and highly adaptable pastoral lifestyle. Our ancestor spoke early Albanian, and was a descendant of one of the founding fathers of the Albanian nation. His descendants spread to nearby areas (Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia) as well as southward towards what is now central and south Albania and North Macedonia, often conquering and mixing with settled Slavicised and Roman populations. From this point, until the 14th century, there were no major migrations into the area.
Entry to the Medieval and Modern Era: A Period of New Migrations & Ethnic Shifts :
Starting from the 14th century, Albanians were frequently hired as mercenaries by both the Byzantine Emperors, as well as Western colonial powers, such as the Catalan Company. These mercenaries (and frequently their families) were resettled across the Greek-speaking world, from Attica to Asia Minor.
In the 14th century, new invaders entered the Balkans: the Ottomans. To escape ethnic and religious persecution, even more numbers of Albanians migrated to Greece, forming the Arvanites, with others subsequently leaving for South Italy, forming the Arbereshe.
Many of these immigrants formed distinct ethnolinguistic communities that persist to this day, while others were assimilated into the broader Greek and Italian population, and lost all memory of their Albanian origin.
Based on the genetic testing of Vafiadis descendants, as well as of thousands of other genealogy enthusiasts from the Balkans, we were able to locate the approximate area where our grand ancestor lived in. Our genetic tests showed that our Vafiadis family possesses the R1b-Y126039>MF5057 haplogroup, which first formed in a man who lived in about 950 years ago. Apart from the Vafiadis family, descendants of this man and his cousins are all concentrated in the modern-day area of Dibër County in Albania, as well as the nearby Cidhen mountains, and the Dibra e Madhe town of North Macedonia. In Ottoman times, all these areas were part of the Sanjak of Dibra, and our ancestor almost certainly called that area his home.
Descendants of this man and his relatives travelled not only to Chios from Dibër, but also to Montenegro, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and Mecca, where cousins of ours from 1000 years ago still live!
What’s in a name?
From genetics, we know that the grand ancestor of the Vafiadis lived in northern Albania about 950 years ago, and that he was ethnically Albanian. Sometime during the 14th century or later, he migrated to Greece either as a mercenary soldier (known as the stradioti) or as a refugee fleeing Ottoman persecution, and intermarried with the local population.
He may have travelled directly to the island of Chios, or his descendants, by that time culturally and genetically Greek, migrated from the Greek mainland to Chios at a later date. From Chian history, we know that the island received immigration from other areas during various parts of its history. Many Samiotes and Icarians immigrated to the island during the Genoese (late 15th century). Once the Latins left the Cyclades, there was additional immigration from Andros and Naxos, especially in the Masticochoria. Furthermore, in the 17th century, Chios also received an influx of Peloponnesians, Dodecanesians, and Cretans. Some of the following toponyms indicate further migrations from the Greek mainland and more exotic places: Μακεδονιά, Κουμανιά, Τσακωνιά, Καραμανιά, Φραγγιά Βουλγάρων, Σκλαβοχώρι, Ταρταρή, Αρβανίτης, Βλάχων, Μιληγγοί, Βαραγγίνα, Αλαμάνοι, Αρμενικό.
All of these migrants from the Greek world and beyond, would have surely included some assimilated Albanians, and our ancestor could have been one of them. What we know for sure, is that the descendants of our ancestor married into Chian society and already had the surname Vafiadis at least by 1790, suggesting they were in the island much earlier.
Vafiadis is the archaic term for “painter’s son”. In Chios, this surname is most common in the village of Tholopotami, where our family hails from. However, all the nearby villages have variations of this surname, such as: Vafias, Vafeas, Vafiadakis and Bogiatzis. This reflects that this area of Chios had many men specializing as house painters, and that many unrelated families adopted the same or similar surnames.
In the 17th century, it was common for Greeks to create more archaic versions of their surname, in order to make them sound more noble. It is therefore very likely that our original surname was either Bogiatzis, Vafias, etc., but was later transformed into the more aristocratic Vafiadis. As one can see in archives from Greek refugees fleeing Ottoman persecution and genocide in Asia Minor, there are hundreds of families across the Greek world that adopted the surname Vafiadis independently.
Our Vafiadis family, prominent members of Chian society, survived the massacre of 1822, and returned to Tholopotami. In 1880s, our ancestor Stavros Vafiadis emigrated to Istanbul, and the rest is history!
Figure 8. Our ancestor Stavros Vafiadis
The history of our family is a testament to human mobility and perseverance, as well as the highly malleable and complex nature of cultural and ethnic identity. Our ancestors would have called themselves Albanian, Roman-Greek, and Chian, during different historical periods. We still carry the genetic legacy of all these people, and with our investigations, we want to honour them and preserve their stories from the oblivion of time. With the descendants of Stavros Vafiadis spread across all corners of the world, it is very likely that their multiethnic genetic palette will take countless new forms and identities.
What we would like to find out is whether we are related to other Vafiadis families from Chios and Asia Minor. So far, unrelated Vafiadis families from Chios have different paternal lineages to us (e.g. haplogroup G-Z2022), confirming our hypothesis that multiple families took the same surname independently.
If your surname is Vafiadis, and you have taken a DNA test, please contact us. We would love to use genetics to document the history and relationships between all the different Vafiadis families!
We would like to thank the creators of the Rrënjët Project website, for their interesting discussions and assistance for the interpretation of our Y-chromosome haplogroup. For a more detailed analysis of our haplogroup, you can visit this link.
Written by : Leonidas - Romanos Davranoglou, August 2021