What I learned from my DNA
There’s a kind of magic that happens when you come in contact with something from the past, as if it takes shape in the present for a moment, flickering, like the light from a candle. This especially happens when the lives of your ancestors come into focus. You can almost feel them taking your hand and whispering in your ear when you’ve connected with something that was meaningful to them. The effect can be just as profound when your DNA reveals the distant ghosts of your genetic heritage.
When I look at old photographs of family members, I can sometimes see something of another loved one in their image. On the face of my great-grandfather, Anthony Yurchak, I see a glimpse of my maternal grandmother, Helen. In my great-grandmother, Anna Lasky, I can see traces of her eyes in my mother’s sister, Faith. It’s there in the slant, the tilt that’s always hinted at Mongolian blood, creating an exotic alloy with the Eastern European genes on that side of my family.
One of the things that’s become very clear to me since I’ve gotten my DNA results is that each individual holds a vast forest of family trees within them. At the surface, where everything is green and vibrant with life, are the generations of the living, our stories contained in the twists and turns of our branches as we grow in the direction the winds blow. The many sediments of leaves on the ground are the stories that belong to the volumes and volumes of generations who came before us. As we continue to research and learn about what we’re seeing, the message within our DNA unfolds, revealing fine layers of truth that may not have seen light for hundreds–even thousands– of years, and each layer that we peel away teaches us a little more about ourselves and the world we live in.
What’s come to the surface has been quite surprising to say the least. Since all four of my great grandparents on my mother’s side came from Eastern Europe, it came as no surprise to see that this composed 67% of my genes. Since we get 50% from each parent, 17% of this Eastern heritage came from my father. Since wide samples have been taken from the Eastern European populations, most genetic testing sites agree on the range covered by this category, which centers roughly in countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine, and can even include parts of Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Finland, Greece, and Italy.
Ancestry.com goes on to reveal that the next largest genetic contribution I received came from my one great-grandmother, Alice Crutcher, who was only half English, and yet 23% of my DNA belongs to her since it comes from Great Britain. This was a surprise indeed, since 3 of my remaining great-grandparents had large amounts of German blood, including Alice, as German was her other half. Strangely enough, my German heritage is represented as less than a 1% trace in my genes and is lumped in with France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. My last great-grandparent, Tom O’Reilly, was the son of Irish parents, and yet even with his large amount of the Emerald Isle’s genetic heritage, only 2% of my blood is green.
I’d always thought that I would have received a lot of my heritage from the German side of my family since they were so well represented in my ancestors. Obviously, this wasn’t the case. Apparently, this is due to the fact that we don’t receive equal shares of genetic material from each grandparent. Instead, shares of DNA are randomly selected when we’re forming. Instead of my grandfather Fred’s pale white skin, I received my grandmother Kate’s dark, golden complexion and dark hair– but I did get Grandpa’s angular face. My brother, one of my cousins, and my uncle Fred, all got Tom O’Reilly’s allergy to penicillin, and from what I understand, it’s a trait that was passed down through the Delaney side of his family.
Ancestry.com breaks the remaining 7% of my DNA into the following trace amounts: <1% North African, which includes Morocco, Algiers, Libya, and even Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East; 2% Finland/Northwest Russia; 2% Scandinavian; 1% European Jewish (No surprise there– I think a large percentage of Europeans have Jewish blood somewhere in their background); 1% Italian/Greek; and <1% Melanesian (Really?! Melanesian? Where did that come from?!)
However, the genetic view depends upon which facet of the prism you’re looking through. According to Ancestry, I’m 98% European, but when I uploaded my raw DNA to Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), it told me that I’m merely 96% European. FTDNA doesn’t really break down your European composition into regions the way Ancestry does. It lumps Ireland in with the rest of the UK so that on that site, a whopping 28% of my genes come from that region (23% Great Britain from Ancestry + 2% Irish + 3% more, just for good measure). On FTDNA, I also remain Finnish/Northwest Russian, but now I’m only 1%. In addition, it appears that my North African background is also categorized as Middle Eastern at 3%, and I gained a 1% genetic heritage from Northeast Asia. Cool! That validates Great-Grandma Anna Lasky’s eyes (and a few other Asian features on that side of the family as well).
This was intriguing indeed. The discrepancies between the two sites are small, but why do they exist at all? Apparently, they have to do with the tools of measurement being used. FTDNA may be using slightly different genetic populations than Ancestry, and even 23andMe, which I have not used. I have, however, uploaded my raw DNA to GEDmatch.com and that is a whole other ball of very confusing wax. Suffice it to say that according to GEDmatch, which measures deep ancestry, almost half of my background is composed of European hunters & gatherers, another large section of that pie comes from European farmers, and the rest is various small amounts of Asian, North African, and Altaic (whatever that is. Haven’t had a chance to do my research on it yet).
Knowing about our genetic heritage probably won’t get you your dream job or help you buy the perfect house, but we can realize our connection to the global community as a whole. I have a new layer of awareness that I didn’t have before. I embrace the aspects of myself that are connected to the world’s history and I feel a renewed kinship with all of my brothers and sisters– living and dead– across the globe. I’m humbled by the men and women who loved and laughed, suffered and rejoiced, built cities, ships, homes, fought in wars and struggled to live in peace, traversed the planet, and nurtured their children, all of them making it possible for me to exist here in this moment. Although our technology has changed, the human story is much the same.
As I come to this understanding, I’m reminded how fragile life is. We too, are like candlelight, flickering to life for just a moment before fading away across the span of time. Like our ancestors before us, we’re leaving our personal signature on the pages of genes of those who will come after us. The question we need to ask ourselves is– what kind of story do we want to leave for them? I’m impelled to value my life in this moment even more than before, to love and appreciate my family and friends more intensely, and to consciously act in peace and respect towards others, to leave the world better than I found it. Life is to be cherished, not spent fighting over differences, borders, and concepts that truly only exist in our imaginations…
Heretic: The Life and Death of Akhenaten by Bijit Reed is available on Amazon.com. You can read the first chapter free or “look inside”. It’s available to buy in paperback and Kindle. Click on the link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009H6R8GC