DNA Travels – Part I

I love this commercial from 23 and Me. The one where this gorgeous young woman traverses the world to find her roots, all found in a 23 and Me kit. She’s freckled, all smiles, grooves and moves. She has a new identity from the test, and it’s something profound and beautiful.

From the dozens of people I know that have taken the 23 test or similar most of them have this idealized reaction. Okay maybe there is less dancing in the streets and swimming in Fjords, but they are happy. They’re happy because they find out pieces of themselves that were lost and now found, thread to the tapestry of them.

My own thread had unexpected backgrounds. I went into both my Ancestry and 23andMe tests pretty aware of what the results would be. Mostly British Isles and sprinklings of Northern Europe. I had a paper trail to Scotland and England by some 17th century puritans and 16th century Stuarts (yes those famous ones). I had paper trails to German peasants and Swedish great-great grandmothers.

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I’ve always loved going to places my family supposedly came from.

Then there were gaps in the story. Gaps that had no paper trail. Gaps that were legends with no proof. More than a few family members told me we were part Native American (Cherokee Princess type of story(more on this another time)), and others touted we were CLOSELY related to the Royal Family of England (also questionable). Yet when I began digging the records showed some falsities, the DNA had no reason to lie (but more on this later).

The problem with records and paper trails is that they are not sure 100% truth. The problem is that means we don’t have solid evidence of familial bonds, and paper trails are the best we’re blessed with. They’re the best historical evidence we have, and even DNA is only solid for about 500 years.

Why are records not 100% ? Well people are people and sometimes lies are told. Sometimes women slept with other people than their husbands, sometimes children were adopted and it was never recorded. Sometimes kids die and then another child shares the same name, but sometimes these dates get jumbled. Sometimes records are digitized incorrectly. Sometimes the records are illegible. Sometimes records are totally falsified. Then many times records are totally destroyed, we’re never created, or have gross mistakes.

For instance, if you look at even one family’s census records over 50 years (taken every ten years) you will see changes in the information. In 1860 someone’s age may be 25, but in 1870 it may be 32. Or a birth place may change from Germany to Alabama. These are examples of sometimes lies that were told to protect the person being interviewed, because of social stigmas, or sometimes people forgot information. The older I get the harder it is to remember my age and those around me, if it weren’t for Facebook I think I would be in big trouble.

So when I went into my DNA tests I assumed I would get some surprises and even inconsistencies between the two.

More in Part II

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