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Ancestral DNA, the bonds of blood, and what any of it means today.
Hey, it’s the end of March! Let’s giveaway another AncestryDNA test! But first, let me tell you about my own experience with taking this kind of DNA test and the illuminating results.
The test kit arrives in a little box which contains a specially designed plastic vial, a plastic bag, and a prepaid envelope for shipping your sample to the lab. Each kit has a serial number, which you register online. Then you spit into the vial (gross), seal it, shake it (grosser still), and send it off. Then you spend the next 6-8 weeks obsessively checking your account every day, just in case you missed the email alert that your results are ready.
Then one day, you get a message that says they really are ready. You click on your name, and you see a pie chart, telling you what was found across 700,000 locations in your genome.
Or rather, who was found. In my case, my DNA pie is divided among people who most likely called these places home up to 1,000 years ago:
- Finland/Northwest Russia< 1%
No earth-shattering surprises for a person whose father came from Newfoundland (there’s the English and Irish), and whose mother’s great-grandparents were Danish immigrants to New Brunswick (there’s the Scandinavian and probably the Finnish). But that wedge of Iberian heritage is intriguing (explaining my father’s black hair and dark brown eyes?), and the big slice of Irish is more than I’d have guessed from looking at my family tree, by half (it also makes a sketchy legend of native blood look very sketchy indeed).
So what does it mean? Well, according to Ancestry, a statistically average native of Ireland has about 95% “Irish” DNA. So, genetically speaking, I’m about half as Irish as the Irish. I think that should get me discounts on Waterford crystal and Aer Lingus fares, don’t you?
Okay, but what does it really mean? Why is the ethnic component of DNA analysis so fascinating and thrilling for me, and for so many people? Why on earth does it matter “what” we are?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. For me, it’s a link to the unknown ancestors, the ones whose names will never turn up on a parish register or land deed. Those pins on the map are clues to their stories. As incomplete as a faded photograph, or a fragile remnant of wedding lace, but a kind of relic nonetheless, handed down in molecules. I am bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh. And while my genealogical pursuit has taught me that family trees are made of much more than flesh and bone, genetic analysis can bring light to the dim or forgotten reaches of our roots.
But the ethnic pie is only the starter course. Whether you have a family tree on Ancestry or not, you’ll receive ongoing reports of genetic matches found in the database, anywhere from one to eight generations removed. Those can be enlightening all by themselves, but when you’ve linked your DNA results to your own Ancestry family tree, things start to get really interesting.
I’ve mentioned that my husband’s family has been in the USA for a long time
. When his DNA results came back, he immediately had pages and pages (and pages) of matches. In dozens of instances, it was easy to compare family trees and pinpoint the common branch (Ancestry makes it easier by highlighting locations and surnames shared by both trees). Not only did this confirm his genealogy along numerous lines, it helped us locate missing ones. Sometimes I’d find a genetic match who had information that we didn’t, or I was able to share my research with others. It’s like a giant recovery operation between distant kin, sharing gravestone photos, scans of family bibles, ancestral lore, and transcripts of wills.
My expectations weren’t quite as high for my own matches, because Ancestry is based in the U.S., and I’m an immigrant from Canada. Even though Ancestry keeps global records, I thought the odds were less in my family’s favor than Patrick’s would be. But the first time I clicked on “see matches,” I found myself looking at cousins only a couple of generations removed.
One of these, I’d already discovered when his wife read my bio in a magazine article I’d authored, noticed I was a Pittman from Newfoundland, and rightly guessed there might be a connection between her husband’s family and mine. His grandfather, my great-uncle, had been lost at sea as a young man. I knew that story, but not that he’d left behind a wife and child. No one living in my family had any knowledge of them. Not every long lost cousin is someone with whom I necessarily want to open a relationship, but this one was, so it was wonderful to find our kinship confirmed by DNA. If we hadn’t already found each other, our tests would have done it for us.
My second closest match was a complete surprise–one to be saved for next month’s Ancestry report. I’ll tell you this much: it involves an adoption story, and the discovery that my roots in this “new” country of mine may go back even further than my husband’s!
Until then, please leave a comment (or a question) to win a free AncestryDNA test and learn your genetic history! See details below.
Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win an Ancestry DNA test (available to U.S. residents only at this time). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, April 4 at noon CST (and congratulations to Anita, who won the one-year world explorer subscription to Ancestry.com in February’s giveaway)!