Archive for Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Scott: Do You Know Who You Really Are?

February 18, 2015

Do you know where you came from? Okay, I know you came from your mother. I mean your geographical and ethnic origins. Genealogy research has become increasingly popular as people have gained more sophisticated tools and resources to explore their ancestry. No longer are we limited to family lore, anecdotal accounts and information passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next, which tends to get distorted with each retelling. And records preserved at churches and county courthouses can only partially fill in the blanks in our bloodlines. Unfortunately, some of those paper records no longer exist. I suppose one could travel abroad and, based on hunches or hearsay, look up some long-lost relative that Aunt Annie is convinced is a blood relative. Even if you didn't get the answers you were seeking, you might at least enjoy the trip. But unless your ulterior motive is to take a vacation, that's a pretty expensive way to do research that most likely would have questionable results.

For Christmas my wife and daughter gave me a DNA kit produced by ancestryDNA. It came in an innocuous little white box that, before the wrapper came off, I judged to be a book. Hmm, I thought, that is a very creative and unexpected gift.

"Does it require a blood sample," I warily asked.

"No," came the reply, "they analyze your saliva. You spit into a tube."

"So I'd better not kiss the maid before spitting into the tube. It would contaminate the sample."

My crude attempt at humor did not amuse. Besides, we don't have a maid.

So a few days later I filled the tube with saliva, put the tube in the postage-paid box, and sent it off. Three weeks later my results came to me via email.

Before I share the results, I will briefly, based on a layman's shallow understanding of the methodology, describe how the DNA results are obtained. According to ancestryDNA, genetic ethnicity is based on a comparison of my DNA to DNA taken from a collection of 3,000 DNA samples called a reference panel. These samples are collected from people whose genealogy is carefully documented so as to establish a high level of confidence that their family is representative of people who have lived in one of 26 global regions for hundreds of years. The DNA sample is tested using 700,000 markers to calculate an ethnic mix.

The science behind the process is a complete mystery to me. I'm a liberal arts kind of guy. My daughter the scientist could attempt to explain it, but I still wouldn't understand it. Whenever she discusses scientific concepts my brain goes numb.

So who are my ancestors? In terms of major regions of the world, I am 98% European: 34% Western Europe (mostly Germany and France); 31% Great Britain; 19% Ireland; 13% Scandinavia; and 1% Iberian Peninsula. No big surprises here.

My Norwegian friend tells me that my Scandinavian strain is the most important part of me and reminds me that the Vikings had a major impact on the populations of Great Britain and Ireland. I told him we could be related.

My wife (who has strong Irish roots) and I have traveled to Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, several times. Interestingly -- and this may be nothing more than a mindset -- I have never felt like a foreigner while in those lands. Who knows? Maybe we have walked on some of the same paths upon which our ancestors trod.

During our next trip to Ireland we'll make a renewed effort to look up a long-lost relative. Maybe Aunt Annie is on to something.

In a future column I will tell you about an incident one of my ancestors precipitated that changed the course of American history. Stay tuned.

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