Ethnicity isn’t everything

The email was all in capital letters, maybe for emphasis or maybe just because it was easier to leave the caps lock key on.

“MY HUBBY INSISTED I DO THIS,” she wrote, with some heat, about the DNA test he wanted her to take. “WHY? 1 LINE GOES BACK TO YEAR I. ANOTHER 26 GENERATIONS. 2 MORE TO 1400’S, ANOTHER 1500’S. ACCORDING TO YOU I WILL LEARN NADA, ZIP, ZERO. IF IT SAID 10% WALES, 10% SPANISH THAT WOULD BE HELPFUL. I THINK IT’LL BE MONEY WASTED.”

Oh, dear. Granted The Legal Genealogist definitely isn’t a fan of DNA testing for ethnicity, because of the inability to reliably determine ethnicity below the continental level.1

why DNABut if anybody has read anything I’ve written as meaning that testing is a waste of money or that the person tested would learn “NADA, ZIP, ZERO” — well, then, I haven’t done my job right here at all.

First off, even a continental level ethnicity result is educational to begin with. At a minimum, we’re all discovering that we’re a lot more interesting ethnically than we thought. “Researchers have found that a significant percentage of African-Americans, European Americans, and Latinos carry ancestry from outside their self-identified ethnicity. The average African-American genome, for example, is nearly a quarter European, and almost 4% of European Americans carry African ancestry.”2

Citing research by 23andMe, that article in Science went on: “At least 3.5% of European Americans carry African ancestry, though the averages vary significantly by state. In South Carolina and Louisiana, about 12% of European Americans have at least 1% African ancestry. In Louisiana, too, about 8% of European Americans carry at least 1% Native American ancestry.”3

In other words, what we think we know about our ethnicity — and what we actually can find out even at the broadest continental level where the reliability is highest — can be very different.

But ethnicity estimates are hardly the only reason — not even the major reason — to do DNA testing. The two big reasons to do it are: (1) to confirm what we think we know; and (2) to connect with cousins we otherwise wouldn’t know.

Confirming the paper trail research is one excellent reason to test, no matter how good we think our research is. Getting a DNA result that gives us scientific evidence to back up what we think we know about our families, or to test a theory we might have about that brickwall ancestor, is a great thing and by itself worth the price of a DNA test.

But it’s also worth the price of a test to find out maybe we’re not so right in our conclusions. Even those of us who have — or think we have — a line that “GOES BACK TO YEAR I” or “26 GENERATIONS” may find that our paper trail genealogy has run off the rails somewhere along the line. An undocumented adoption of a child, for example. A remarriage where the children of the first marriage took the surname of the second husband.

Some people don’t want to find out that their research is incomplete. They’re afraid of finding out that, maybe, that Mayflower line isn’t their line at all. Or they really don’t descend from a Cherokee princess.

But for every line we may lose through DNA testing, another one — the right one — is gained. Putting us back on track in our research is certainly something we as genealogists need to embrace, not shy away from and certainly not fear.

Moreover, in so many cases, what we’re really discovering is that we have a new biological family line to research in addition to the social family line we’re part of. The family of that second husband stays part of our social family history — stays in our overall family tree — even if we don’t connect biologically. Families have always been built of more than just blood. For that matter, even that family story of the Cherokee can stay a family story (properly footnoted with the DNA results, of course).

And perhaps the greatest reason to test is to connect with cousins we wouldn’t even know were out there otherwise. Few of us grow up knowing our second or third cousins. Yet every one of those people may very well have bits and pieces of our mutual family history that we would love to know about.

That Family Bible with the names and dates and places carefully inscribed on the family history pages.

The location of a fourth great grandparent’s burial.

That photograph of the second or third great grandparents.

A photograph of our own parents or grandparents as children sent off decades ago to an aunt or uncle.

I don’t know about you, but every one of those is something I would love to add to my own knowledge about my family.

If taking a DNA test is the price of admission to the great lottery of cousin-finding that might lead to even one of them… well… all I can say is, at less than $100 for the most expensive autosomal test out there, it’s a small price to pay, and hardly a waste of money.

So yes, my friend, you may have researched back to year 1. But DNA may still tell you something you don’t already know, or just confirm for you that you’re right. Either way, it’s worth it.

Come on into the DNA testing pool.

The water’s fine.


SOURCES

  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “The percentages, revisited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 May 2016 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 24 Feb 2018).
  2. Lizzie Wade, “Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans,” Science, posted 14 Dec 2014 (http://www.sciencemag.org/ : accessed 24 Feb 2018).
  3. Ibid.
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