Poland is an unusual place. People have been living in it for over ten thousand years, but we only have written records from the last thousand years. Prior to the 10th century, almost nothing was written about Poland.

Polish people are known for their resilience. They have battled extreme weather and famine. They have been caught between many warring nations. And yet they persist.

So let’s take a dive through history, and see what we can learn about the genetics of Polish people.


Polish Genetics


We should start our examination of Poland by looking at its modern genetic profile. Worldwide, Polish people number around 60 million. Almost 40 million of these people live in Poland proper, and another 10 million live in the United States. The rest are distributed throughout Europe and the western hemisphere.

About 60% of Polish men belong to Y-haplogroup R1a1. This haplogroup is very common amongst Slavic nations, including Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. This evidence suggests that most Slavic men came from a common ancestor in Central Asia.


Haplogroup R1a distribution. By CratesOwn work based on File:R1a-map.JPGSources: Own work by uploader based on multiple publications, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
 

A large minority of Polish men (about 30%) belong to the Y-haplogroup R1b. This haplogroup is more common in Western European nations, including France, Spain, and Germany. This makes sense, because Poland is the border between Eastern and Western Europe. Logic suggests that a border country, such as Poland, would share DNA with both sides.


Haplogroup R1b distribution. By MaulucioniOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
 

Mitochondrial haplogroups (mtDNA) for Polish people are more diverse than Y-DNA haplogroups. Most Polish mitochondrial DNA falls under the groups H1, J1, T, and U5. These mtDNA haplogroups are common amongst most European and Slavic peoples.

In other words… it might be somewhat difficult to determine Polish ancestry if you’re female. There are many different nationalities that share mitochondrial DNA with Poland. However, if you’re male, your Y-DNA haplogroup could be a strong indicator of Polish ancestry if you get a Y-DNA result of R1a.

So what are the events that led up to this genetic distribution? Let’s dive into some history!


Prehistoric Poland


Neanderthals and Early Humans

During the last ice age, the northern part of Poland was covered in glaciers.


Northern Poland in the last Ice Age. Image Courtesy of USGS
 

However, just because Northern Poland was frozen, that doesn’t mean Poland was uninhabited. Our cousin species, the Neanderthals, lived just south of the glaciers. Neanderthals lived in Europe from 200,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago.


Image courtesy of Discover Magazine.
 

Homo sapiens appeared in Europe about 45,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were near extinction. What exactly happened between Neanderthals and humans is anybody’s guess. However, some genetic evidence points to intermingling.


Protohistory


Poland wouldn’t see its first written records until the 10th century CE. In other words, no written records until the middle ages. We call this period of time before writing “protohistory” because we have archaeological evidence, but no direct accounts.


Kurgan Hypothesis (6,500 BCE)

Some of the first evidence of human culture in Poland dates back to 6,500 BCE. These early people lived in what is now Ukraine, near the Black Sea. They spread north, east, and west from the Black Sea. They ended up in what is now Poland, Russia, and Armenia. For this reason, many Polish people share haplogroups with Ukrainians.

Some historians refer to this early group as “Kurgan Culture” because the people made large burial mounds known as kurgans.


A Kurgan
 

Poland was right on the border between Kurgan culture and another group we call “Linear Pottery” culture. The Linear Pottery culture earns its name from the pots they made with simple line art.


Linear Pot
 

We know that Linear Pot Culture grew basic gardens of wheat, peas, and lentils. We also know that they regularly worked with obsidian and flint tools.


Pots, Pots, Pots!

Linear Pottery culture wasn’t the only pot-related group in Poland either. To keep you from getting bored, we’re going to rapid-fire the groups known by their pot names. There’s about five of these groups, if you include Linear Pottery culture:

  • Linear Pot Culture (5500 BCE)
  • Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture (4500 BCE)
  • Funnelbeaker Culture (4300 BCE)
  • Globular Amphora Culture (3400 BCE)
  • Corded Ware Culture (2900 BCE)

Stroke-Ornamented Pot (4500 BCE)

Funnelbeaker Pot (4300 BCE)

Globular Amphorae (3400 BCE)

Corded Ware Pots (2900 BCE)

 


The Bronze Age

With the advent of basic metals, early Polish people saw an expansion of their tools and culture. Today, archaeologists uncover these tools that have been left behind.

Unetice Culture (2300 BCE)

Unetice Culture is the first Bronze-Age culture to appear in Poland. We see some of the origins of modern Germanic and Slavic cultures with Unetice Culture. We also see basic metallurgy appear in the archaeological record. Unetice people made tools out of bronze and ornaments out of gold.


Unitece swords. By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
 

Trzciniec Culture (1900 BCE)

This difficult-to-pronounce culture originated along the Dnieper River. This culture produced more advanced metalwork, including intricate silver and gold artifacts. They also cremated their dead and buried them in the ground.

Lusatian Culture (1300 BCE)

After Trzciniec Culture (Say that five times fast), came Lusatian Culture. Lusatian Culture saw the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Poland. One of their more well-known settlements is Biskupin, located in central Poland.

Lusatians dug many storage pits near their settlements. They lined these pits with stones, and stored all sorts of goods in them.


An example of a storage pit.
 

Pomeranian Culture (700 BCE)

Pomeranian culture appeared in the middle of the Iron Age. Historians know of Pomeranians because of their urns. They cremated their dead and placed them in urns that had faces on them. These “face-urns” wore hats or jewelry, and no two face-urns were identical.


Face-Urns. Photographed by User:Lillyundfreya – Photographed at Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
 

The Iron Age

The Iron Age heralded the coming of new tools and wares. These wares allow archaeologists to determine what different populations were doing.

Oksywie Culture (200 BCE)

Oksywie Culture was an offshoot of Pomeranian Culture, and continued many of its traditions. But this time, it was with iron!

Wielbark and Przeworsk Cultures (100 CE)

These two Iron-Age cultures overlapped each other in time and space in Poland. They contained a mixture of local cultures, including Pomeranian culture and Gothic culture from the north.


Early Slavs and the Polans (800 CE)

Finally, we approach written Polish history. The early Slavs appeared around the time that Western Rome fell. They originated near Ukraine and Poland, and expanded outwards towards the Balkans and the Volga River. Along the way, they picked up Christianity and converted to it. Greeks and Romans referred to these early Slavs as Veneti (“friendly”) and Spori (“they scatter like grain”).


By User Fphilibert from fr.wiki – here, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
 

One group of early Slavs, the Polans, rose to power in the area that we now know as Poland. They were led by legendary figures who founded the Piast Dynasty. Their first historical leader was Mieszko I.


Written History


Piast Dynasty (963 – 1385 CE)

The Piast Dynasty was founded by Mieszko I. He established Poland as a monarchy. Mieszko forged alliances with nearby Bohemia, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire. Because most of Poland was Christian, Christian texts appeared in Poland. With these texts came reading and writing.


Miesko I
 

The Piast Dynasty carried on for 400 years, slowly increasing its territory and implementing reforms. However, it was a bumpy road. The Polish monarchy saw retractions and splits between several heirs before reuniting.

Before the end of the Piast Dynasty, King Casimir III the Great instituted several major reforms. Unfortunately, all of his male heirs died. The Piast Dynasty ended without anyone to take the mantle.


Poland-Hungary Merger (1370 – 1385 CE)

However, Casimir’s nephew was also the king of Hungary — King Louis I. Succession of Poland passed to him, and for a brief period of time, both Hungary and Poland united. King Louis I gave the Polish nobility a fair deal of autonomy. In exchange for this freedom, he required that one of his daughters would ascend to the Polish throne.


Jagiellonian Dynasty (1385 – 1572 CE)

Louis I’s youngest daughter, Jadigwa, ascended to the Polish throne in 1384. She would not remain a queen by herself for very long. She married Jogaila, the Lithuanian Grand Duke, in 1386. Together they served as co-rulers of Poland and Lithuania. She reigned for 15 years before dying, not long after giving birth.

Upon her death, Polish rule fell to her husband Jogaila. This kicked off the Jagiellonian Dynasty. Jogaila remarried twice, but both women failed to produce heirs. They died not long after. His fourth and final wife produced an heir, Władysław III and his brother Casimir IV.


Casimir IV
 

Around this point in time, the “golden age” of Polish culture arose. The Renaissance arrived in Poland, and many great works of art and literature sprang forth. The Protestant Reformation also swept through not long after, and produced a culture of religious tolerance in Poland.


Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569 – 1795 CE)

Poland and Lithuania were a de facto united country for hundreds of years, thanks to the Jagiellonian Dynasty. This union was formally agreed upon by the Union of Lublin in 1569. The new confederation was named the “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” and later called the Commonwealth of Poland.


The Commonwealth
 

The Commonwealth had a unique system of government for its time. It was a basic parliamentary system. It had a king who was in charge of matters of war, but an elected congress. The King had to swear to uphold the Henrician Articles, an early constitution.

However, there was a problem with this system: The nobility slowly took power from the monarchy and parliament. The nobles were also vulnerable to outside influences and bribes, causing power to slowly leak from the Commonwealth.


End of Sovereignty (1795 – 1918)

An uprising in Poland in 1794 gave foreign powers the excuse they needed. Austria, Prussia, and Russia carved out pieces of Poland for themselves, and Poland’s sovereignty ended. It did not reappear for another 120 years, although a national identity remained.

During this time, Poland saw a lot of change. Only a few years after Poland lost its sovereignty, Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Europe and claimed Poland in 1813. Napoleon set up a puppet government, the Duchy of Warsaw. This didn’t last long either, because Napoleon got the boot in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.

After Napoleon’s defeat, the Duchy of Warsaw was replaced by Congress Poland. Congress Poland was technically a part of the Russian Empire. And the Russian Empire made sure it stayed that way, forcibly integrating Congress Poland into its umbrella.


WWI and the Second Polish Republic (1918 – 1939)

When the storm of World War I came around, Poland was a major battleground between the Russian Empire and the Germans.

The war gave Poles the opportunity to earn their independence. The Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, supported Polish independence. The Poles fought on Russia’s side during the war, and were rewarded for their efforts with the Treaty of Versailles. The Second Polish Republic was born, and lasted 20 years, right up until World War II.


WWII and the Cold War

The Second Polish Republic were caught between a rock and a hard place when World War II arrived.

Hitler and Stalin secretly agreed to split Poland between themselves. When the Nazis and USSR invaded, Poland was pinned. It called for help from its allies, Britain and France, but help never came. Poland fell in under a month, and was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany did some awful things to the population of Poland. They suppressed uprisings, and shipped dissenters off to forced labor camps. The Jewish population of Poland was wiped out by both sides. Today, a small population of Jewish people remains — most either left for Israel, or were killed by the USSR and Nazis.

After WWII, the USSR retained control over Poland. While it eventually loosened its grip, it wasn’t until recently that Poland regained its sovereignty. Only 30 years have passed since Poland wrested itself free from the USSR. The Polish government has joined NATO, and actively works to resolve disputes in the region. Time will tell what comes next for Poland.

So… do you consider yourself Polish? Let us know what you thought of the article below!


References


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63 thoughts on “Curious Research Information: Who Are the Polish People?

  1. We celebrate Dyngus day every year. My entire family always looked forward to this celebration. However, we are African American but my Hreat Grandfather was Dutch, so we thought.

  2. We celebrate Dyngus day every year. My entire family always looked forward to this celebration. However, we are African American but my Great Grandfather was Dutch, so we thought.

  3. Although I have no Polish heritage, I loved this article! I would like to see something similar done on any one of multiple European groups – or all of them. My heritage is primarily German-speaking and English, so those would be my primary interests, but I’m interested in history, so all groups would be welcome to me. As much about the DNA histories and distributions as possible is requested. Thanks.

  4. I found the Blog extremely interesting since I am American of Polish decent. I had no previous knowledge of their history. My dad was from Krakow and this summer I had the opportunity to visit my mother’s side of the family in Lithuania. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting my cousins and look forward to going back soon.
    I think the Polish people have always gotten a bad rap and the world needs to know more about the Polish people and their culture. They are a very smart and caring group of people.

  5. It’s very interesting. I know that I have Swedish, German, and Jewish DNA so it’s possible I also have some Polish DNA as well. I’m curious to get my results back.

  6. My husband’s ancestors came from Darzlubie. They said they were Kashubs, a Savic people that Guntar Grass in his novel The Tin Drum referred to as “Too Polish for the Germans and too German for the Poles.”

  7. Thank you for this great article. Knowing my ancestors (my dad was born there in the 20’s) lived through this turmoil is heart wrenching. Unaware of what my grandparents had to do to protect my father, brings me joy, happiness and proud to be Polish. I feel closer to my ancestry then ever before. Thank you Alex and your team for such an insightful article. Looking forward to many more.

  8. I really appreciate this article. My grandmother was born in Poland in 1909, but her parents had immigrated to the US a little over a year before. They returned to Poland to try to settle their estate (they had holdings in railroads and nut farms, and were of the lesser nobility), and my grandmother was born there at that time. I remember Dad and grandma speaking Polish to each other while I was young, and we all learned a bit of Polish, but that was over 50 years ago, and I remember very little Polish, but I still remember a few words and phrases. Thank you again for this article.

  9. Very interesting, that is the Polish history. I had my DNA tested through you and found that somewhat interestin … but what I was hoping for was details on my father who died when I was 4 years old so I never knew what his background was, and I still don’t. Noone in my direct family is living which precludes obtaining any information that they may have had.

  10. OLDEST EXTINCTION HOMO SPECIES LOCATION
    FOUND Disappeared Date Erectus to Sapien Burial Site
    -3,800,000 -1,250,000 # 1 Homo Habilis South Africa
    -1,875,000 -1,750,000 # 2 Homo Erectus Africa and West Europe
    -1,875,000 – 700,750 #3 Homo Gautengensis Africa, Indonesia, China
    -1,875,000 – 160,000 # 4 Homo Rudolfensis Europe, Asia
    -1,750,875 -1,650,000 # 5 Homo Ergaster Kenya, Africa
    – 875,000 EXISTING # 6 Homo Sapiens Asian Islands populated all continents
    – 750,000 – 475,000 # 7 Homo Heidelbergensis Africa
    – 425,000 – 65,000 # 8 Homo Neanderthalensis Heidelberg, Germany
    – 325,000 – 250,000 # 9 Homo Naledi Germany
    – 190,000 – 80,000 # 10 Homo Floresiensis South Africa
    – 67,000 – 45,000 # 11 Homo Erectus Indonesia, ‘The Hobbit’
    Thanks for sharing. E PLURIBUS UNUM out of many, ONE!

  11. WOW what a very interesting first read. Have to find my father’s papers and see what part of POland his parents came from. My father’s parents moved from POland, and he was born in BAbrov, Slovakia in 1903, certainly would appreciate more on poland. Thanks much for this article. Is I am or is I ain,t Polish?

  12. Yes. I am a Pole.
    I’m excited to see if I’m a Jewess Pole.
    My great uncle said we are but the family destroyed the papers proving this.

  13. Well, I am shocked. My whole family moved from Setschanfeld, Austria after the 2nd WW to Canada. I had no idea that it was part of Poland at any time at all. Setschanfeld was taken over by the Nazi’s after Poland was taken or around the same time. My family was held, prisoner, until long after the war ended. I was told that that part of Austria was also taken by Hungary and Yugoslavia. They had to learn all those languages at school at the same time. I guess I should find out where I really come from.

  14. It’s wonderful to know about Polish history which I knew very little about. Seems my mothers background is Polish and for that reason I now am fascinated to learn more! Thanks a million for the information received.

  15. As 84-year-old women of 100% Polish descent with a Masters in history I was very pleased to read this informative article,

  16. I enjoyed the artical very much. Anthropoliagy and archiology are two of my favorite subjects. (Spelling not so much). My dear wife (now passed) was Polish on her fathers side and Enghish on her mothers side. But she always identified with her Polish side. But she was frustrated with complexities of Polish histrory.

  17. I read this article with great interest because I dated a lady whose parents families had immigrated from Poland between the first and second world wars. Her father was Osowiecki: and her Mother was (sic) Zayja. Altho the name had many more letters to it. Dad was an amiable, and Mom was double dealing, back stabbing, person who knew what she wanted to achieve: whatever it took. Dad offered me $100K to marry his daughter, who I opined after we bought a house and furnished it: I would be found dead in my sleep. She is still single living in the family manse.
    Dad was a very skilled Machinist, and mom excelled at house keeping until Dad died. Then she binge shopped and horarded: until there was just a path through the house.
    I went my separate way but their daughter (Holly) and I are still in touch.
    Thank you for the article. I enjoyed the history.

  18. This was a very informative article. I am part Polish on my Grandmothers side. This was my Mother’s Mother and she was a Polish Catholic.

  19. Thank you for informative article. Maternal great-grandmother Radzihowa emigrated from Poland to US in 1910. Could anyone tell me where maternal Haplogroup H5* possibly originated-thanks!

  20. Interesting read. Timing was great. Got test kits in today’s mail. Maternal GF Wichert, born 1880 in a village east of Berlin, right on the Oder River. His mother was a Sadowski, born in central Prussia around 1850. GF Wichert immigrates to US (1904) and ends up marrying his 1st cousin, his mother’s, brother’s daughter! The Sadowski’s immigrated in the 1880’s and ended up in Central Illinois. Found the manifest for the ship that carried GF Wichert. His final destination listed Decatur, Il, where his maternal Uncle/Aunt and future wife resided! Makes sense to go where you have family. Ordered additional information on this maternal connection. Hopefully it will provide more insight on this branch of my family tree.

  21. My mother was half Polish and half Cherokee. She spoke frequently of the Cherokee, but little about being Polish. I found this a very intriguing and informative article. There is much culture there to be learned, I think. Thank you very much for sharing.

  22. This article was fascinating!
    My father’s family was from Poland and now I understand the history of the country better.

  23. Fascinating Supposedly my 5x great grandfather was one of the Agustus Krakows from Prussia ( looking at my genetics I consider myself to be more Viking – lots of mixing of populations

  24. Hi Lexi, My siblings and I do have Polish ancestry. I did my DNA testing to verify some suspicions of incidents occurring at the end of ww2. Our Polish heritage was a bit of a surprise but makes sense. I was expecting to see dominant Russian ancestry, my Grandmother was raped by military. Her location at the time suggest the Russians were recruiting along the way. I believe the man who actually fathered my mother was a Polish man fighting in behalf of Russia.

  25. My daughters grandmother on her Fathers side is Polish so this article was very interesting. Her grandfather on her fathers side is Greek, and I just learned that I’am 36% Slavic. Will be Looking forward to future articles.

  26. Very informative!!
    How about doing an article on Romanians and Hungarians. Things can be very complicated here. For instance my last name is Romanian but it means son of a Hungarian! My DNA looks to be mostly Ukrainian Hungarian and a little Romanian.
    Thanks
    Bob Ungurean

  27. This was interesting and, who knows, it may apply to me. Thanks.

    I notice that there is no mention of what I’ve heard often: that parts of western Poland were parts of Germany at times, something that confused family histories.

  28. I enjoyed this very much. I have been researching since 1970. I am wondering who my
    ancestors are and just which Stockton, and American indian Creek are from. I need
    to know just how the identification is told.

  29. I have read a lot of history on Eastern Europeans. My Grt Grnd Pa, Grn Pa were born in Galicia, and My Grt Grnd Ma was from Poland. Grand ma was born in New York, All this is from my Dads’ side of the family. Moms’ side is a bowl of mixed fruit, But I am most interested in the history, geography culture of times past. a good read. thanks

  30. I knew Poland was jerked around but this article made it understandable. I love this as my G.Grandparents came to America from Poland in 1888 from Woluszewo and my Grandfather was born in USA. My father lost both his parents and a sibling in 1919. So we were never educated on our heritage…….this article pleases me very much. Thank you Rita Ciot (Ciotuszynski)

  31. Thanks for this Polish history. for anyone wanting to find out more details about the excellent synopsis provided in this blog, there is an excellent book called Poland, A History by Adam Zamoyski. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated from Poland in the late 1800’s. But it is very hard to get much accurate information about the connection between Poland and my grandparents, as there are few documents to find, and that was just a crazy time in the world when masses of people moved about without detailed documentation. I am looking VERY forward to having my DNA ‘read’…but it needs to wait until after Christmas. In the meantime, I am off to Poland next week for a short visit to my husband’s family. He was part of the next wave of immigration from that country in the 1980’s. Life is all a circle. thanks CRI for what you are doing!

  32. I found this an interesting read. I am 100% Polish, made in America with Polish parts. My DNA result said I am Polish but the majority of my DNA is Finnish. How does this fit into the above history. I always felt a kin with Viking lore and culture, so the Finnish connection and some British DNA made sense to me.

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