My DNA and Its Surprises


Here are my raw results from the Ancestry.com DNA test I took recently:

Eastern European            35%

Native North American   24%

Native South American   10%

Southern European           7%

British                              6%

Uncertain                        18%

To my family, some of this may come as a huge surprise.   I know it did to me.  Various stories are rampant in our family about our heritage.  These results add both clarity and questions to our process.

The verbal histories and documents for my birth father’s family are very clear.  From my third great-grandparents, each responsible for 3.13% of my genes, generations of my paternal grandfather’s family are from Michoacan, Mexico.  Many more generations of my paternal grandmother’s family are from Aguascalientes, Mexico.  These individuals date back nine generations from me, some into the mid-1700s, which would account for one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) from each of my ancestors at the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent level. We know the towns and villages.  We know the names.  We know the dates.

In my birth mother’s family, though, we have always learned that we are not Mexican.  We are Native American.  Period.  End of story, if my grandfather’s stories are accurate.  The challenge is that the groups with which we should identify ourselves are not so clear since each of my maternal grandfather’s siblings told a slightly different story.  Apache, Yaqui, Blackfoot, Ohlone, and so on.  Having not been reared in this family, being adopted at birth, I had to learn all of these stories after most of my ancestors were gone, and be able to decipher them the best way I knew how.  Eventually, though, I came to a dead end with no document-supported, objective answers that affirmed any of the stories without question with regard to our Native American history.

Several years after discovering even what questions to ask, I heard from a cousin of mine, Catherine, who has been a vital part of our journey to discover our family history, that a researcher in Santa Barbara was asking for DNA samples for people believed to be, in anthropology-speak, Costanoan indigenous people, or those whose ancestry came from the West Coast of California.  We didn’t know whether we were from this macro group or not, but we had found our people in the San Jose, California region for more than 150 years.  We do not have information about where some of them were born.  With this information, I offered our direct-line genealogy and a DNA sample.  That was several years ago and still I have not heard anything.  All I know is that my DNA currently resides in Germany with researchers who are trying to make sense of my gene pool.

Let me continue this discussion by giving some perspective to percentages in every person’s family lines.  The following table shows what percentage and fraction of my genetic material each person in that generation must claim:

Parents                                     50%               1/2

Grandparents                           25%               1/4

Great-grandparents                 12.5%            1/8

Great-great-grandparents         6.25%          1/16

If more than one of my progenitors shared an ethnic history, and in our case, some even shared family history,  then the overall percentages of ethnicity would be skewered, which they are.

Late last year, I heard that Ancestry.com, an organization to which I’ve belonged since 2004, began sending out notices that a DNA test would be offered.  This wasn’t one of the “Y” chromosome tests for one’s paternity information, or a mitochondrial DNA test for matrilineal information.  No, this was an autosomal DNA test where they evaluate a person’s entire genome at more than 700,000 sites, or markers, in the individual’s full 23 chromosomes.   This was the whole picture taken from all of my genetic material.  I couldn’t pass it up.  I added my name to the waiting list.  Several weeks ago, my name came up.

I paid my fees, and within a few days, my test arrived.  I spit in the vial and sent it out that next day.  That was about three week ago.  Yesterday, my test results came back in.  Several things happened when I received that notice: I had some information confirmed, received some new information, and realized that my DNA may be in Germany a long, long time.

The confirmation I received is that my genetic history is about 1/3 indigenous to the Western Hemisphere; 24% from Central and North America, and 10% from South America.  The data did not specify from which side of my family these numbers came.  Although I was not aware that any part of my family originated in South America, it does not surprise me that some part came from there because my father’s family lived so far south in Mexico.

The most startling bit of information I received was that more than 1/3 of my genetic material originated from Eastern Europe, which includes countries from as far south as Greece to as far north as Estonia.  One fact that made me smile is that my ethnicity is likely similar in part to my adoptive father’s, whose Polish heritage I have always claimed as my own, if only culturally.

As a strange aside, this information inspired me to to remember my late friend, Miriam, who often said to me, “I just know you are part Gypsy!”  Contrary to what some who know me well may believe, she was not referring to the alluring musical theater character of the same name.  She was referring to the Romani people.  She had no reason to believe that I was part Gypsy; however, more regularly than I’ve seen with most others I know, she often made amazing leaps of intuitive gymnastics.  Could there be a grain of truth in what she believed about me?  She said this on numerous occasions, most often just before she died. The circumstantial evidence is there.  The Romani people speak a language that many anthropologists and linguists believe originated on the Indian subcontinent.  When people look at me, including individuals from that region,they most often ask me if I am East Indian.  Not Mexican.  Not Italian.  Not North African. Not Middle Eastern.  Indian.   Could others see in my face what our family has had no knowledge?  Could my genetic history confirm their observations by the fact that 35% of my ethnic pool originates in Eastern Europe, the same place the Romani people have lived since no earlier than the 11th Century?  Of course, this is simply a fantastical hypothesis; or is it?

The part that is most confusing to me is that I have no idea from whom such a large proportion of my Eastern European genetic heritage could have stemmed. The only segment of my family that originated from anywhere remotely near there is the Sicilian branch of my family.  As far as I know, not one person can be traced to Eastern Europe, let alone more than one-third of my ethnic heritage.

The most expected part of my genetic information is the 7% identified as having come from Southern European parentage.  With families in Mexico often having Spanish ancestry, and a Sicilian Italian ancestor, this made sense.  The one question that arose is that with one grandfather who I believed to be full Italian, this number should have been at least 12.5%.

One small surprise was the 6% defined as genes that originated from the British Isles.  That means that one of my great-great grandparents was likely English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh.  The only problem is that I believe that I have information on all 16 great-great grandparents.  Is this an indication of a secret that no one knew before?

The most difficult challenge that I had with the results of this test is a category called, “Uncertain.”  This classification is for genes that have markers that generally indicate they derived from a certain area, but they do not meet the “extremely high standards” that Ancestry.com claims it has.  Until they can be verified, these markers shall remain in this quizzical category.  Could this be where the specific markers for small bands of Native Americas exist that at this point cannot be authoritatively assured?  Could these be African or Asian aboriginal people that have so few people tested that there is no way to verify the data?  Which of my ancestors are represented by this number?

The number itself is problematic.  When I checked others’ levels of “Uncertain,” I saw numbers as low as 6% to as high as 16%.  Why did I not see anyone with my level of “Uncertain,” which was 18%?   This is nearly 1/5 of my genes, representing more than one great-grandparent’s genetic history.

As with any research project, often the researcher is left with more questions than answers.  Such is the case with my DNA results.  In this case, though, this is all so very personal.  The good news is that I now know that fully 1/3 of my heritage developed from the Native American people stretching from North America to South America.  On the other side of my family coin, I now have to figure out from where we originated because our information is clearly nowhere near complete.

Stay tuned for more information as we delve farther into our genetic past.

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