Finding Italian cousins through DNA?

Here is something I wouldn’t have ever expected to see until the past few months: my closest maternal DNA cousin on MyHeritage.com is now someone from Italy. And not only that, the match helped me solve a genealogical question it would have otherwise taken much more time and tedium to resolve.

I was stunned to log in and find this new match at the top of the list.

I wouldn’t have ever expected this until the last few months because DNA testing for ethnicity and connecting with cousins has been an overwhelmingly American phenomenon. The appeal for us is obvious, with our diverse ethnic backgrounds and plethora of ancestral immigration stories lost to time. Well, that is, it was an overwhelmingly American phenomenon until MyHeritage started crushing it in the last few months. I noticed something was up when, around the beginning of the year, I observed that the majority of my new DNA matches were from outside of the US. That trend has remained steady. These matches have come from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, Guadeloupe, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Cyprus, Greece, Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Serbia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Guam…phew…and, whoa.

Let’s get more concrete about what that means. Those little bits of your ancestors that they passed down to you are also part of your thousands of cousins, scattered across the world. You and people 180° across the globe bear the same genes from your 3rd great-grandfather or 7th great-grandmother, and maybe you wouldn’t have known where to even LOOK for your 7th great-grandmother — the woman herself, who gave you the unique way you form a smile, the pattern of curl in your hair, your skill with the piano, or your love of poetry —without finding a cluster of DNA matches in some spot on the globe, and following their trail. Those matches can bring the identity of your ancestor out of the darkness and unite you with their other living descendants, your extended family. That’s the magic of widespread autosomal DNA testing for genealogy, and that’s the magic MyHeritage is bringing us.

Anyway. Let’s get back to the specifics of this brand new closest DNA match. I reached out to her on MyHeritage and hope to hear from her soon, but of course, I couldn’t resist trying to find our connection. My mom is 50% Italian; her father’s parents were both immigrants to America from Rionero in Vulture in the Potenza province of Basilicata.

The DNA match is very close – 202 centimorgans. This range has a variety of possibilities, as visible with the wonderful Shared cM Project tool. Thankfully, the match had put up a scant tree, listing the year and town of death for 3 of her 4 grandparents. None of the grandparents had died near Rionero. But fortunately, I recognized one of the surnames, Lama, as common in Rionero in Vulture, though not in my direct line; the other surnames were not ones I’d come across in the town in my countless hours of paging through centuries of vital records.

The match’s tree on MyHeritage.com

I knew that this match couldn’t actually be any closer than a 2nd cousin, since my mother’s grandparents never returned to Italy after they left, meaning, the shared ancestor would have to be a generation back in time (my mom’s great-grandparents or further back). This left only the possibility of 2nd cousin or 2nd cousin 1x removed. The great-grandparents of my mom’s ‘new’ cousin on the relevant line would be a male Lama and his wife (the parents of the cousin’s paternal grandmother).

Since neither of my mother’s great-grandmothers married a Lama and unknown extramarital affairs seemed unlikely in their small turn-of-the-century town, I guessed that the wife of the male Lama — the match’s great-grandmother — must be a daughter of one of my mother’s sets of great-grandparents: of either Francesco Paolo Cataldo & Lucia Viglioglia, or Angelo Giovanni Conte & Filomena Giordano.

Each of these couples had precisely one daughter whose marriage and family details were yet unknown to me. Finding these details, sans family stories or indexed records, is tedious, requiring good old-fashioned manual browsing of the Italian vital records. I would have gotten to it eventually, but here was my incentive.

I was inclined to believe this new match was through the Conte/Giordano great-grandparents, since she didn’t have any common matches with my known Cataldo cousins. Since DNA is passed down randomly, it was possible for her to have inherited none of the same segments as those known Cataldo matches, but it would have been a little unusual.
Additionally, at that point I had NO known DNA matches through the Conte family, which moved around a lot throughout every generation I’ve documented.

Filomena Giordano had 3 live births registered in Rionero, one of them of course being my own great-grandmother Lucia Conte. When Lucia died, her obituary (probably written by her daughter, my great-aunt Rose) provided the following very helpful information:

"Mrs. Lucy Cataldo" (Obituary), The Plain Speaker, 05 Oct 1955, Newspapers.com. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/49187512/obituary-for-lucy-cataldo/ : 2020
“Mrs. Lucy Cataldo” (Obituary), The Plain Speaker, 05 Oct 1955, Newspapers.com. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/49187512/obituary-for-lucy-cataldo/ : 2020

In other words, Lucia Conte’s sister outlived her, so she certainly had enough time to become the ancestor of my ‘new’ cousin.

Finally, this DNA cousin triangulated with one of my two big fat sets of Balkan and Slavic matches. While I hadn’t confirmed my theories about either set, I believed that one set was through my mother’s paternal family, via an unknown ancestor; and the other set was through my mom’s maternal family, via her direct maternal line (our maternal haplogroup is H5a2, a relatively small and recent haplogroup occurring pretty much only in Slavic countries according to the bit of research that currently exists on it).

I can’t think of any sound evidence to explain why, but I was fairly convinced that the paternal Balkan/Slavic matches came through the Conte family as opposed to those families that had been in Rionero in Vulture since the beginning of civil record-keeping in Italy. The matches are distant enough (<30 cM) that they could be pre-1700 matches, and thus from an ancestor born in the period before I have been able to fully document all of my Rionero family lines (a good Processetti, the collection of documents compiled by a couple for marriage, can take you back to the early 1700s; before this, for most families we must rely on church records, almost none of which have been microfilmed or digitized, unlike civil records). I hadn’t confirmed a shared ancestor for any of the matches that triangulate with this group. So this really was just a feeling.

Isn’t it nice when your gut feelings turn out to be right? I paged through through a decade and a half of marriage records, looking at Lama marriages (in this period in Rionero, only the groom was recorded in the index of each year’s records). Along the way I happened upon the marriage of the other ancestor candidate, Carolina Cataldo, daughter of Francesco Paolo Cataldo and Lucia Viglioglia. I also stumbled across the marriage of my ‘new’ cousin’s other set of paternal great-grandparents, the great-grandparents whose son married my cousin’s grandmother Lama, shown in her tree above. As I suspected from their surnames, that couple had come from towns far away (115 km from each other, and >400 km north of Rionero! How they ended up in this dusty village is a mystery for another day).

And then I finally found what I’d set out in search of: the marriage of Mauro Lama to Gelsomina Conte.

After that I quickly found the birth record for their daughter, my DNA match’s grandmother. So my DNA match was indeed a descendant of Angelo Giovanni Conte and Filomena Giordano, making her my mom’s 2nd cousin 1x removed.

Lucia Conte, my mother’s grandmother, passed away before my mother was born. The photo below, taken shortly before she passed away, is the only one I have of her. So it is incredibly lovely to know that her close family is still alive and well abroad. I hope that I can successfully get in touch with my ‘new’ cousin, and perhaps we might even meet one day, after this crazy global event is over. I have been working on claiming Italian citizenship by descent through Lucia Conte, so if all goes well, there will be ample opportunity. Until then, I’ll be on the lookout for all my new DNA matches across the globe on MyHeritage – I hope you’ll check yours out, too, and maybe we’ll even find each other in our lists of cousins!

My great-grandmother Lucia Conte, sister of Gelsomina Conte and daughter of Filomena Giordano and Angelo Giovanni Conte.

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