What do Sicilians Look Like? Let’s dig into the DNA

What colour are Sicilians?

This seems to be the most controversial and provocative question one could possibly ask in relation to Sicily.

I receive a regular stream of distressed or outraged comments from people who cannot bear it when I mention that Sicilian skin spans a range of many tones. They are always Americans with Sicilian grandparents or great grandparents, rather than people who live in Sicily.

Some of them actually send me photos of Sicilians to “show me how white Sicilians are”. This is not necessary because I have lived in Sicily for eleven years. I see Sicilians wherever I go. I even see one in my bed every night. Explaining that Sicilians are white is like explaining that the Queen is posh. Why would you feel the need to mention it?

Shocking prejudice

I realised why, when a Sicilian-American friend told me recently about the staggering prejudice she had experienced growing up as an American with a Sicilian surname. My mouth literally hung open when she recounted what people had said and done to her.

Here in Sicily, the people – obviously – don’t experience any of that nonsense. They have no reason to re-write the narrative of their own history or heritage. They are proud of every part of it.

In Europe we consider all indigenous Europeans to be white people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of something else in you too. We’ve been invaded so many times we probably all do.

Early Sicily... prototype for a Benetton advertisement?
Early Sicily… prototype for a Benetton advertisement?

What’s in the Sicilian gene pool?

We had our family DNA tested a while ago. I wondered what would turn up from this list of the people who have invaded and/or settled in Sicily:

Three original tribes called Sicani, Elymians and Sicels.  They were the first arrivals after Sicily rose up out of the sea, and ancient writers thought they originated from Spain, mainland Italy and Greece.

Carthaginians (Carthage is now called Tunis). They were Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) mixed with a few North African Berbers.

Greeks

Romans

Jews, who were the only ones to migrate to Sicily instead of invading. Nobody knows exactly when they came but they were here before the Moors invaded.

Moors from North Africa (they were an ethnic mix of Middle Eastern Arabs and North African tribes)

Vikings (otherwise known as Normans or Norsemen)

Vandals (a Germanic tribe)

Ostrogoths (from the Byzantine Empire)

Swabians from what is now South Germany

Angevins from what is now France

Aragonese from what is now Spain

More French and Spanish and also Austrians

Bourbon French

And finally, Mainland Italians.

As you can see, the gene pool is quite varied.

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My Sicilian husband’s DNA

Firstly I want to say that connecting people’s DNA with geographic regions or races is in its infancy as a science, and has a certaintly level ranging from 50% to 80% – so it is speculative and far from certain. It’s still fun to look into it, though.

My own DNA results were so boring it was hardly worth the money. They just said British British British British British British British, 0.1% Broadly North European, British. (The only exciting part was 0.1% African. Wherever did that come from? Being one-thousandth African suggests you had one African ancestor in early medieval times. The mind boggles.)

The kiddo was a bit more exotic.

For Hubby, we got 81% Italian, a lot of “broadly southern European” and a little “broadly northern European” (this means they cannot work out exactly where it comes from), a little bit of Spanish and a little more French and German, about 4.4% Middle Eastern and North African, and about 1% west (sub-Saharan) African.

Why so much variety among Sicilians?

There are plenty of national and ethnic groups in the list of invaders which did not make an appearance in my husband, but which might be heavily concentrated in other Sicilians. Based on Sicilian people who have told me their DNA, the variety is immense. Some had as much as 24% Middle Eastern DNA in their report. Some were 20% German. One was nearly a quarter Greek.

I think this lack of homogeneity is because Sicilians have spent centuries marrying people from the same village. If a village or town was a Greek town 2,000 years ago, chances are it pretty much still is. If it was originally Moorish, it may still have a major spike in African and Middle Eastern DNA.

It’s only very recently that significant numbers of Sicilians have started marrying people from other towns and begun seriously mixing up the gene pool. It will take many generations before they achieve the homogeneity that mainland Italians now have. (As a result of the Roman Empire, Italy with its slave economy was very multi-ethnic 2,000 years ago.)

Out of Africa

One particular gene called a haplotype can tell you, if you’re male, who you father’s father’s father’s father was, going exclusively through the male line back to when you were only just human. Women can go back directly through the femal ancestry.

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In this male line, Hubby’s haplotype evolved 23,000 years ago in Eastern Africa and then one of his ancestors migrated, along with others of his tribe, into the Mediterranean region at some point. This haplotype is still most heavily concentrated in Eastern Africa around Ethiopia and Somalia, where almost 100% of the men carry it.

The tantalising thing about genetics is that we can never know if this African male ancestor turned up in Sicily during the Moorish invasion in about 1,000 A.D., or 22,000 years earlier than that.

So, what colour are Sicilians anyway?

Let’s go back to those Sicilian Americans and the question of what Sicilians look like. The short answer is that there’s no such thing as a typical-looking Sicilian. There’s just far too much variety. You get tall ones, short ones, sturdy ones, dainty ones, very dark ones and very pale ones and even a few gingernuts. There’s one boy in my village with platinum hair and freckles, who looks Swedish.

When Sicilians have a baby, the question on everyone’s lips is, what carnagione do they have? Carnagione means skin tone, and in Sicily, you never know what you’ll get. Dark like Nonna Pina? Blonde and green-eyed like Nonna Anna? Deep olive skin like uncle Danilo? I have a brother-in-law who is extremely dark but his son has platinum blonde hair and blue eyes.

Meanwhile the photos I am sent from America always look like Sicilians in winter. Of course Sicilians are pale in winter. But what about summer?

Most Sicilians spend as much of the summer as possible on the beach. I have never, ever seen a Sicilian buying or applying sunscreen; they just don’t need it. How dark they go is partly a result of their genes and mainly a direct measure of how much leisure time they get. Very white people get lots of pity and commiseration, whereas the dark ones attract slightly envious admiration.

I’ve seen Hubby looking the same colour as me, and I’ve seen him after a lot of time on a yacht looking, I swear, as dark as an African. Except for his buttocks, which were so white they glowed in the dark.

I expect his backside is his 2.5% German part.

***

Feel free to say anything you like about this post but, if your comments are rude to me, or to anyone, or ranting, or designed to provoke, I will not publish them.

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146 thoughts on “What do Sicilians Look Like? Let’s dig into the DNA

  1. I’m not going to assume I’m only, 1/2 Sicilian and 1/4 Irish 1/4 English. I have been told that all my life. My grandfather on my fathers side was born in Santa margarita Sicily. I know I probably spelled the town wrong. My grandmother is Sicilian decent born in Brooklyn New York. My maiden name is calderone. My mother is English on her fathers side born in garrison beach Newyork and my grandmother was born in county cork Ireland. My fathers father was fair skin with blue eyes. My father was dark skinned Sicilian. When he was in the sun he could pass for a black person. I got the black Irish look. Light skin, that’s burns and thick dark brunette hair and big Italian hazel green eyes that go brown. I get all the time, you look like a map of Italy with your big hips and skinny waist, dark hair and beautiful skin. Then I hear you look just like your mother who is Irish English. I was so confused on who I looked like when I was younger. I was conflicted. As I got older I realized I looked very much like my mother. My father being Sicilian born in 1926 was called black Sicilian. Or the “n” word by the Italians. Italy looked at Sicilians as trash back then. And it carried to New York. The Sicilians stayed with their own. Now most of my friends who are Italian or Sicilian all their dads married Irish. They make gorgeous kids. Lol. I love this article and all your comments. I too want to have a DNA test to see what I really am. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was Greek in my heritage.

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  2. Reblogged this on The Anthropologii Lady and commented:
    Truth! I’m a Sicilian Italian with a smidge Irish, Scottish and English. I turned out dark olive with dark hair and dark eyes. The diabetes I got from the English part. Nonetheless- my family has suspected we are part African in our Sicilian roots. Truth be told we are a lot of things!

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  3. Hey, I live in Sicily and as far as i know i’m 100% sicilian (if this can be even considered an ethnic group lol). I agree with you with all the crazy variety of the gene pool we got down here in Sicily. Infact my mother has olive skin, dark brown hair and amber eyes and she’s very short; my father has pale skin, grey eyes and dark blonde hair, also he’s quite tall (almost 6′ 3”).As a result i have dark brown hair and brown eyes and pale skin which doesn’t go really well with the sun ( i burn instantly and i’ve been always nicknamed “mozzarella”). I guess i’m in the minority of those who buy sunscreen.

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    1. Oh wow! I thought I was the only person in Sicily who got called Mozzarella!!!! Even my son’s best friend, who has bright ginger hair, blue eyes and freckles, manages to get a little bit of a suntan in summer….

      It makes me feel a bit better there’s someone else suffering the same 😉
      But tell me, do they tease you when you are applying sunscreen on the beach?

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  4. Both of my late grandpa’s grandparents were from Sicily. Both born near Palermo. So, naturally, he thought he was sicilian, and my dad thought himself half Sicilian. My grandpa had dark olive skin and black hair, and my dad also had black hair and olive skin, and would get very dark in the summer. So there wasn’t much of a question. But low and behold, I took a DNA test from Ancestry and found I’m only 3% Italian. Just as much as I am Jewish. And to my complete surprise I found I am 7% middle eastern, as well as 7% Spanish. I’m also 8% French, 65% British. The latter two do not surprise me. But the rest is a complete surprise. My Sicilian grandfather isn’t as Sicilian as he thought.

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    1. But everything you have listed is found in Sicilians, apart from the British part. Obviously the French DNA, to take an example, could be from a French ancestor, but could equally be from a Norman ancestor of 11th century Sicily. DNA can only give a snapshot, not a timeline. But any or all of that 35% of your DNA could have come from a Sicilian… And You would only get 25% from a grandparent. So grandad could definitely have been fully Sicilian!

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    2. as for the British , they also had a mix from the Vikings and Normans. which actually were Vikings themselves and also french and other groups like the Romans, which also were mixed, some may have also been from Sicily, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article! My mother is 100 percent Sicilian, both her parents immigrating from a mountain village called Lucca Sicula in western Agrigento province; my dad born in England and thinking he is British, just found out his great-grandfather was from eastern Sicily, near Catania! Mom is olive skinned, dark hair, almond eyes; dad is blonde, fair, and blue-eyed. Both are small and slender. I love my ethnicity!

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  6. Beautiful , I’ve got my parents from Pakistan.
    I was born in Italy in the Emilia Romagna region, near Modena city beautiful.
    I look like an Arab guy when Italians people look at me and see me speaking Italian they get shocked.
    North people are more complicate and south are simple people.
    And … Finally now I live in Manchester.
    I liked your post , Unfortunately there are some mafia people there but with this we can’t judge all the Sicilians , doesn’t matter just peace.
    Sogni d’oro.

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  7. All 4 grandparents are from Vizzini, a small province of Catania… so I assume lots of in-breeding..I am darkest in my family..olive skin, and aqua blue eyes..yes, when I was younger I stopped traffic.
    My brother and cousins have similar features..same eyebrows and eye shape, but hazel eyes…i am sure they hate me..lol..I spent lots of time in Greece and everyone assumed I was Greek.. they say, “one face, one race”.. I know alot of sicilians but none from the same town..I have never been to Vizzini cause I a. Afraid I won’t come back..hahahahaha..I assume I am big mix..my fathers family is very white and look Austrian..i look identical to my mom’s father..Seems he could be from the knights of Malta..I am very happy and proud to be Sicilian..the fact of my mixture makes me interesting.

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    1. I think you should visit Vizzini! So what if you never come back? 😉
      Have you tried tracing your family? It’s easy with Sicilians because you just need to find one relative in Sicily and they can introduce you to everyone else! 😃

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      1. You are soo cool ! A sicilian mother-in-law..wow..you have courage !!.. i miss my grandparents..they seemed so content with a simple life..so many things i didn’t ask them..like how they made wine, or canned tomatoes, or how they managed to take a knife to a piece of fruit and create a piece of art like a widdler.. its funny they came here in 1915 wanting to be in New York, and I would love to be in Sicily..but back to my roots..it is my mom’s parents I want to trace…my grandfather’s sister adopted a daughter and my parent’s visited her. I know she would help me
        .They say I look and act like his sister..his other siblings went to Argentina and Australia … I think spending time in the greek islands I felt a similarity to sicilian women..especially the elder widows all in black..aah, life is good.. its so cool that you jumped right in to this unusual culture

        .
        .

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      2. Thank you!
        Sicily is so beautiful and I feel very lucky to have lived there for so many years. It is such a pity Sicilians are still leaving the island in droves. A hundred years on, you still can’t get a job. Such a loss of talent for the island.

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      3. Sorry so many are leaving…also wondering about refugee problem..sicily is vunerable just sitting out there.. I read the “mafia” has sworn to keep sicily safe… Did you ever go to Vizzini ? Just west of syracusa..it is the home of the story of Cavaliere Rusticano Opera.. my grandfather took me to see the opera and said he knew the family of the real life story.. so much culture… so excited to read your blog…soo cute how you met your husband..still laughing about your mother in law and her chemicals..my mom was the same..I had to go outside when she cleaned…she even wiped down my school books..and it still smelled in school..lucky I had strong lungs..I only clean with vinegar and now realize why…but I must say you are a great story teller..I so enjoy you..my grandparents were born late 1890’s, they never went back.. sent their $$ to italy and Musillini came to power.. they told me I was crazy to go there..now that everyone’s gone except my mom, (93 with dementia) I find myself soo curious.. and no one to ask.. but I am the keeper of all the photos, documents, etc..

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      4. I don’t think Sicilians feel “vulnerable” to the refugees, but rather, just wish they had more to give them. My impression is that people’s sympathy for refugees diminishes the more distant they are from their suffering – both in terms of geography and of personal experience. Sicilians see their suffering with their own eyes and on the economic side of things, they share part of it too. I have never heard anyone in Sicily say anything negative about refugees. And that is one of the things about Sicilians that I deeply admire and try to take inspiration from.

        I had forgotten how the Mafia used to claim they were protecting the common man. It was part of their clever PR machine at one point. Nobody falls for that rubbish these days so they have stopped saying it.

        I haven’t been to Vizzini but I have been to Siracusa and explored that area a bit. I absolutely love it.

        Have you found my blog post about the sulfur mines yet? If you search sulfur you will find it. The farm workers and salt miners lived similar lives close to slavery. I think it is quite moving and an eye opener for people whose ancestors left Sicily and who don’t really get why they did, or why they were so certain they never wanted to go back.
        Although life has moved on, you still need to be a courageous and deeply resilient person to cope with what Sicily can throw at you.

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  8. Well, I stand with the refugees..its horrible what has happened. Here I am helping with safe houses since our new Government is rounding up Mexicans like crazy. I lived in Mexico a few years..and I won’t let them down..I have been a busy activist at the moment and will not stop
    .my local sheriff says he will not participate in any round ups..Our recent election has stunned most of us..I live in Palm Beach, so Trump is my neighbor.
    No one feels secure, our democracy is slipping away…a dictatorship is on his agenda..but you just witnessed Brexit….lucky I have a strong faith and come from good strong people…as of today a group of 10 have supplied 22 safe houses that illegals can run to. On a better note I am sure your husband has funny experiences living in UK…about DNA. Do you suggest ancestry or the new one..i think 123& me ?

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  9. Is anyone here Sicilian and Finnish? My father was born in Castellamare di Golfo and immigrated to NY in the 1960s. My mother was born in Finland and also came to NY. They met, married and had me and my brother. Its an unusual mix – my mother is very fair skinned, blonde and kind of quiet. My dad is one of the very dark Sicilians and he is kind of a tough guy. The Sicilian side of my family is generally very loud, they eat a lot, curse a lot, big on hand-gesturing, and are very huggy-kissy. The Finnish side is very nice, quiet, they eat bland foods, and are pretty reserved people. My grandmother was very bossy and my mom was pushed around a lot but my parents love each other very much and are still together to this day. They were married in 1972. Anyway, anyone know anyone with this combination? I’ve NEVER met anyone except my brother. Curious to know….

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    1. This story reminds me of an Italian film I saw when I had just got married, about a Scandinavian woman – I am pretty sure she was Finnish – who married a Sicilian and ended up living with the children in his very backward looking village. She had a terrible time and was never accepted by the locals, who regarded her as a loose woman for breaking a few social rules she had no concept of. I just wish I could remember the name of the film! But it was terribly sad, so maybe it’s better you don’t see it 😀

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      1. I have only seen some of the film, but could it be Stromboli by Rossellini? The protagonist is played by Ingrid Bergman, but I don’t think she portrays a Scandinavian character.

        I have only started reading your blog, but I can relate to a lot of what you are writing. My parents are Italian, my father was born and raised in a small town on the northern coast of Sicily. I spent a few years living there when I was a child and I go back every now and then.

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      2. I have seen that film, I think she is meant to be a north Italian? Can’t remember.
        Mega depressing anyway!
        I have been trying to Google search for the film I was talking about but I can’t remember the name of a single actor and haven’t jit upon the right search words! But I will let you know if I track it down.

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