DNA Testing: Real Science or Reality Show?

Let’s talk briefly about DNA testing for ancestry research.  Briefly mainly because I need to get to bed early tonight, but also because what I know about DNA testing could only fill up a brief blog entry.

My ancestors were apparently world travelers!

I think I mentioned before that I have taken multiple DNA tests for ancestry research purposes.  It all started back around 2001 when the National Geographic’s Genographic project was begun (see https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/).  Being a longtime subscriber, I think I saw an ad for the project in their magazine.  Being partial to redheads with brains, I immediately developed a crush on the lead scientist Spencer Wells, and managed to pull together the fee to buy a kit for both myself (for mt DNA) and my Dad (Y Chromosome).

Current number of participants in the Genographic Project.

When we got back the results, Mom and I were surprised to learn our maternal line was Haplogroup Z and not the more mundane European lineage we expected.  Knowing that my maternal great-great-grandmother was from Varmland, Sweden, we assumed it would be a more “European” result.  Z, or more accurately now Z1a, apparently means that we may actually have been descended from the Sami peoples of the Arctic areas of Europe, or perhaps were descended from Hun invaders.  (Mom tends towards the Sami connection, while I love the idea of being a Hun!)  In fact, this haplogroup has more relation to people in present day Korea and the Kamchatka peninsula in far eastern Russia than to the people of Europe.

My mt DNA results from 23AndMe.com

When new companies started to come out with new tests that purported to trace your overall ancestry using new segments of DNA, I quickly signed up.  I won’t go into too much detail about which companies I’ve used (I’ll go into that in a future post I’m sure though) because what I’d like to talk about here is how can you trust the results you receive?

That’s what it’s about: Trust.  You have to trust the company to test your DNA accurately and scientifically to come up with what your ancestral make up is.  Trouble is, can any company truly test your DNA and predict your ancestry from the results?  I’m not questioning if it’s possible to test DNA for ancestry, I’m questioning if the companies doing the testing are actually doing it right.

Before I go much further, I must say that so far all the tests I’ve done have come back to be mostly what I’ve expected.  I’m mostly European (shocker!), with a little North African, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle Eastern and Jewish tossed in for good measure.  I didn’t expect to find any truly Asian, or for that matter Native American roots in my family tree, and neither did any of the tests.  And, to be clear, all of the tests that also tested my mt DNA results came back with the same Haplogroup Z that the original test pointed to.

My ancestral origins according to 23AndMe.com

What I’m wondering is this: Are we advanced enough in our scientific knowledge of DNA to understand specific locales for specific DNA sequences?  Really DNA for the common masses is a really recent development!  It’s not been that long since we’ve been able to sequence the human genome.  How on earth are we able to accurately test people’s ethnic origins?

I know this entry is full of unanswered questions.  And that’s because I’m no expert.  I want to believe that my results are accurate.  I like the idea that my ancestors may have been Bedouin nomads, or people living in sub-Saharan Africa 500 years ago.  But I have so many questions without answers at this point.  It’s hard to not question whether or not we’re all being sold a bill of goods.

Really, only time will tell.  I just hope that it’ll tell us that the tests were legitimate, accurate, and only expand our knowledge of the Human Family.

Cave Girl say “I’m less Neanderthal than the average European!”

By the way, for those of you wondering I am also apparently 2.6% Neanderthal.  No wonder I was driven in college to write thirty-five page paper trying to debunk some of the myths around Neanderthal lack of speech and lack of culture!  And now research is starting to prove me right!  (I see a Neanderthal post in my future.)


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