DNA Surprises

Ever since DNA testing got big a few years ago, I have had a sort of (morbid) fascination with it. I especially gravitated towards stories of mistaken identity, revealed family secrets, and reunions of long-lost relatives. Last year I watched in vicarious delight as Tony’s cousin—who had grown up as an only child—discovered and reconnected with the brother she never knew she had. I was pretty sure nothing like that could happen to me, since my family has been Mormon for generations, and is therefore peppered with more than its share of amateur genealogists.

I retain a healthy scepticism of any genealogical line purporting to go all the way back to 525 A.D. (yes, at least one of mine supposedly does). Still, my many lines documented back to 18th century England or Scotland or colonial America are probably reasonably accurate. In fact, when I was a young Mormon this abundance of already-completed genealogical research presented a bit of a problem. I had been taught that it was my God-given responsibility to find yet more undiscovered ancestors, yet the task seemed overwhelming, to say the least. After all, four or five generations of diligent Mormons had already been working on this project for decades, if not centuries. Fortunately, in my post-Mormon state, genealogy has become an optional pastime, not a religious imperative. I can’t claim to have personally extended any family lines, although I have achieved a sort of intimate familiarity with certain Italian ascendents on Tony’s side of the family, due to their importance in my life-goal of acquiring Italian citizenship.

For reasons likely related to a steady diet of science fiction, I had a sort of visceral reluctance to having my DNA genotyped. On the one hand I was dying to do it, but on the other I was convinced it would somehow trigger my participation in one or another undefined dystopian doom scenario. Left to my own devices, I would probably never have done it until compelled to do so by some such hypothetical future scenario. Besides, what was really left to know about my ancestry that had not yet been uncovered by generations of Mormon relatives? Probably I would end up with the most boring DNA results ever.

My years-long ambivalence was brought to an abrupt halt when my mother-in-law gifted me and Tony 23andMe kits this Christmas. Before committing and spitting, I still googled a dozen or so variations of ‘dangers of DNA testing’, but unable to come up with anything concrete, decided to surrender to the experience. And speaking of spitting, nobody prepared me for the sheer amount of ‘DNA material’ required, or how disgusting it feels to spit so very many times. Especially when the person next to you is also simultaneously and repeatedly spitting. Anyway, we got through it. The provided packaging was just a smidgen too big to fit in a Dutch mailbox, but I persevered and stuffed it in, belatedly hoping that in the process I hadn’t cracked the plastic tube and flooded the mailbox with biohazardous material.

After that it was just a waiting game. 23andMe definitely has customer psychology figured out. They sent me several helpful emails like this, telling me my sample DNA had moved on to the next stage.

As you can see, they also did a great job setting my expectations. The date they gave me for expected results is still a week out, and I received my results a couple of days ago.

And speaking of those results, it turns out that when it comes to your own DNA, you should never assume you know everything, no matter how much genealogy your family has done. I was so floored by mine that I called my mom to see if there was some family secret I’d never been let in on. You see, every time I have followed one of my family lines back to the ‘Old Country’, that country was invariably England, Scotland or maybe Germany. So I was completely unsurprised to see that in fact 85.4% of my DNA is European.

However, I was very surprised indeed by that other 13.4%. Because at no time had anyone ever told me that I had a significant percentage of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. How fascinating!

When I called my mom to tell her the results, she was similarly intrigued, and unable to give me any concrete answers. However, she did tell me that the African DNA probably comes from somewhere in my maternal grandmother’s lineage, which is the one line she has found difficult to trace.

One of the most fascinating bits of information 23andMe presents is an estimation of when your most recent ancestor with a certain genetic makeup was born. In my case they informed me that I:

‘most likely had a great-grandparent, second-great-grandparent, or third-great-grandparent who was 100% Nigerian. This person was likely born between 1830 and 1890.’

How much implication and history are contained in those two sentences. 1830 to 1890 might seem a bit far back. However, in a family tree populated almost entirely by tidy sets of names, dates and places going back for several centuries (and invariably to Western Europe), it becomes a large and tantalising question mark.

Who was this great-(great-great-)grandfather or grandmother? What was his/her story? In a time when interracial relationships were taboo, did my relatives at some point actively hush up this piece of our heritage?

It is possible that I will never know the answers to these and other questions. My intense curiosity over them glaringly illustrates the privilege I enjoy when it comes to the white European parts of my genealogical line. The fact that I know so much about so many parts of my family is a direct result of the fact that these relatives (whatever the religious persecution or poverty they may have suffered) historically enjoyed the many privileges of whiteness. Things like being counted on the census (unlike many Native Americans), being allowed to legally marry (unlike many Asian Americans), and not being ripped from their homelands, sold into slavery, and subjected to the complete erasure of their identity and history (unlike many African Americans).

My DNA surprised me with a tiny glimpse of what it might feel like to come from a family that has experienced that kind of brutal injustice. This undeniable piece of my own heritage is encoded intimately and triumphantly within my own genes. They bear silent but eloquent witness to the fact that underneath and behind the dominant narrative of history there is always a multiplicity of other stories, suppressed, forgotten, unacknowledged, and waiting to be discovered.

5 thoughts on “DNA Surprises

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  • January 19, 2020 at 10:36 pm

    It would be interesting if you ALSO did the Ancestry DNA test to see if (or how much) they agree with this one about the African connection (and also Tony’s Italian percentage)! Also, if your parents were agreeable, it would be cool to test them to see which one passed down this DNA. Thanks for sharing your interesting findings! 🙂

    • January 22, 2020 at 3:57 am

      I’m definitely tempted to do the Ancestry test. And of course I would love for my parents to do it as well. And my siblings too! We are definitely not a family where everyone looks alike. I remember my first awareness of genetics being family discussions about blue and brown eyes. Tony’s parents and some other relatives have already done Ancestry, and I know they turned up with a lot of Italian, but not sure about percentages.

  • January 17, 2020 at 12:01 am

    So fun to find out your heritage. Does that 1.2 % Italian help you at all with your Italian citizenship? Why is it everyone wants Italian citizenship? Is it the “easy” to claim for that European citizenship?
    Anyway have fun with the knowledge, dreaming, and discovering.

    • January 17, 2020 at 2:38 am

      The Italian DNA won’t influence my citizenship application, unfortunately. They require proof in the form of birth certificates.

      The thing that makes Italian citizenship law somewhat unique is that there is no generational limit for claiming it. So even though Tony’s Italian ancestor was a great-great-grandfather, he was able to get citizenship. Most countries limit it to parents, or at the most grandparents.

      Tony’s DNA results came back as 22% Italian (mostly Sicilian), but we are pretty sure his 21% French is his northern Italian Waldensian line.


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