Many people put a lot of stock in their bloodlines. They like to tell tales of famous ancestors and are excited to learn that their great-great-great-uncle performed a heroic deed. I find this tendency rather curious. Why do we care so much about the lives of long-deceased people we’ve never met, simply because we inherited some of their genes? Do we believe their greatness has been passed down to us? What about the ancestors with less admirable stories — do we believe we inherited the shame of their misdeeds? (And if we go back far enough, aren’t we all part of the same family tree?) Whatever the reasons, there’s no question that our biological and genetic descendancies form key parts of our identities.
I perhaps approach this topic differently from the average person because I was adopted as an infant. Until about five years ago, I knew nothing of my biological ancestors. When home DNA tests hit the market, I was understandably interested in them. I thought it would be cool to identify with a national heritage besides the melting pot that is the United States. Maybe I’d better understand why I look like I do. Maybe I’d meet some long lost relatives. Maybe I’d learn valuable health information.
When AncestryDNA was running a holiday sale last year, I decided to give it a try. The tests are not terribly expensive; Ancestry’s standard price is about $100, and I paid about $80 for mine with the discount. They sent me a kit with a little plastic tube into which I was supposed to spit. It took a few minutes to generate enough saliva to fill the tube. I sent it off for testing and waited for the results.
About six weeks later, I got an email notifying me that my DNA test results were available to view. Though the actual results of the test were not all that surprising, I found them fascinating. I’m a very white-looking woman with blue eyes, so I was not shocked to see that most of my DNA came from Western Europe and Great Britain. Still, for someone who’s never known where her ancestors lived, it was pretty cool to have some solid data. My test results indicated that I have more Western European genes than the average Western European native, which I found funny. Some later genealogical research revealed that most of my ancestors probably hailed from Germany. The test also revealed trace DNA from Italy/Greece, the Iberian Peninsula, and Caucasus, as well as tiny amounts of European Jewish and Irish genes.
(Side note: I’m not a geneticist and only have a rudimentary understanding of the science behind these tests. You can read more about it on Ancestry.com.)
What I really loved about AncestryDNA was the ability to see numerous people with whom I shared DNA. I’d spent most of my life not knowing anyone to whom I was genetically related, and now all of a sudden, I could discover hundreds of relatives. Initially, the closest relatives identified by the test were predicted to be third cousins. For each match, I could only see a username, photo if available, and limited profile information that the user had chosen to make public. I could send them messages, though, and I did. A few people responded. I had a nice exchange with a woman about my age who was a school teacher living close to where I was born, about an hour away from where I’d grown up. We discerned that we were cousins through my mother’s side of the family.
As more people take the test, my list of matches continues to grow. My biological mother took the test, and it accurately identified her as my mother (I’d already met her at that point, so the test was not responsible for revealing her identity to me). Once my mother had taken the test, I could determine which of my matches were on my mother’s side and which were on my father’s side. I got a first cousin match who turned out to be the first cousin of my mother, and we exchanged emails and connected on Facebook. She seems like a lovely person who shares my interest in art, and we have a mutual Facebook friend. We had both lived in the same city, though at different times.
The DNA Circles feature is interesting. Ancestry combines its DNA database with users’ ancestry.com family trees and gives me predictions of common ancestors based on the people with whom I share DNA. For instance, if I am genetically related to four living people who appear in the family tree of John Doe, then Ancestry predicts that I, too, am likely a descendant of Mr. Doe. I can then learn about his life by viewing a map of where he lived and other details gathered from census records, gravestone photos, and other documents that Ancestry has collected. It turns out that many of my predicted ancestors lived in the region where I live now, which is a strange coincidence given that I had no connection to this area before I moved here in 2012.
Perhaps the most amazing consequence of my AncestryDNA test is that it led me to discover the identity of my biological father. My birth mother had told me his name, but it was a fairly common name and I was not able to find him from Google results alone. AncestryDNA matched me with a second cousin, and through her family tree and some corroborating internet research, I was able to learn about my father, who is now deceased. I exchanged a series of emails with my second cousin, who turned out to be the first cousin of my father. She was very sweet and told me what she remembered about my father and his family. She had lost touch with that branch of the family decades ago after her own father had passed away, and she had not known of my father’s death. We connected on Facebook, and she’s offered to meet up with me sometime.
My AncestryDNA results have certainly given me a lot to ponder. Though I wouldn’t say the test has dramatically altered my sense of identity, it has filled in some gaps and provided some closure. I’ve found answers to questions about which I’d always been curious.
Even for those who think they know their lineage, I think these DNA tests can be eye-opening. You may discover that you are a distant relative of someone you’ve always thought of as a friend. You may learn that you have genetic roots in places you’d never considered. There’s a great viral video that shows how the tests can be a tool in combating our racial and ethnic biases and prejudices.
Of course, AncestryDNA isn’t the only game in town. It’s the only test that I’ve taken, but there are other options, including 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. If you’ve taken one of these other tests, I’d like to hear about your experience.
Have you taken a DNA test? What did you find, and how did the results affect you?
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