DNA Ethnicity Testing - Is it Right for You?
I'm sure you've seen the ads on TV; a pleasantly surprised-looking person is talking about finding unexpected roots after taking a DNA test (apparently now requiring the acquisition of new ethnic garb and cultural knick-knacks, judging by the commercials). Have you ever seen one of those and considered getting your DNA ancestry tested?
Because if you're serious about genealogy, you totally should.
I can't recommend getting tested highly enough. If you're even a little bit interested in your genealogy - and if you're reading this you must be - you probably also have a natural curiosity about your ethnic background, too.
I'm Greek. Why Bother?
If you've got Greek roots like me, you may think that's all there is; you're Greek, your parents are Greek, you went to Greek school, grew up Greek Orthodox and bleed olive oil. Good luck to those poor souls who don't know their own history, but you're all set, thanks.
Not so fast.
I was rock-sure of my heritage, too. All four of my grandparents came from Greece. Greek was my first language. I recited Greek patriotic poetry on Greek Independence Day in front of our Greek Orthodox priest in full Queen Amalia dress with my little sister beside me dressed as a tiny, surly evzone. I made the Parthenon out of sugar cubes in Greek school. I was Greeky Greekopoulos with a slab of feta cheese on top.
And I'm only about 59% Greek*, according to my Ancestry.com DNA test.
WAIT WAIT WHAT? BUT I'M GREEK HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!
Because other folks have been, er, mingling with sexy, sexy Greeks for a loooong time.
We interrupt this post to bring you...SCIENCE! Autosomal tests are generally what people think of when they think about getting their DNA tested for ancestry reasons; it shows your ethnic background going back anywhere from 500 to 1000 years. It will not tell you if you are related to Alexander the Great. Sorry.
There are also two other kinds of DNA tests - Y-DNA and mtDNA. Those are more in-depth tests that go very deep into history - thousands of years - and are more related to migration patterns of early peoples and less about your great-grandmother coming from Russia or wherever. Y-DNA traces your deep paternal line - your father through his father through his father - all the way back several thousand years. Only males can trace this line; women don't carry the Y chromosome necessary for it. A woman can find this information out by testing a brother or father.
MtDNA (the "mt" stands for mitochondrial) traces the motherline in the same way, showing deep maternal ancestry. Women and men both have mitochondrial DNA passed down from their mother, so both sexes can test for this. Again, this will not make your distant ancestors known to you, but merely show where they may have migrated from.
So, I'm 59% Greek. What's that other 41% made up of?
Well, according to Ancestry, aside from their designated mix of Greece/Turkey/Albania, there is also Italy, Turkey and the Caucasus (its own category separate from the more vague Greece/Turkey/Albania designation Ancestry gives), and a touch of Middle Eastern.
Over time I took two other autosomal DNA tests, one with FamilyTreeDNA and one with 23andMe. Between those and Ancestry, I had what are probably the Big Three testing sites covered.
Frustratingly, because each company has different parameters and test populations and such, the results are somewhat different. I'm still overwhelmingly Greek (or Balkan or Southeastern European, depending on how each site defines it), but the mixes are different. The only things that remain across the board are Greek, Turkish/ Middle Eastern (however they describe it) and Italian.
I don't know where the Italian stuff came in, but it's not a huge leap, either geographically or imaginatively. Italy's, like, right there, and there was much to-ing and fro-ing of the Venetians and the Genoese during the Renaissance era, ruling entire chunks of Greece, not to mention Magna Graecia. It's no surprise I have a relatively high marinara content in my DNA.
23andMe counts Turkey as 'Middle Eastern', while FamilyTreeDNA has a separate 'Asia Minor' classification, of which I'm an astonishing 27%, the highest of any of the three companies' outcomes. Whether the Asia Minor designation counts as Turkish or Anatolian Greek or some mix of both, they don't specify.
The Turkish information doesn't surprise me at all. I have two grandparents from western Turkey, near Smyrna/Izmir, and given the...complicated...history between Greece and Turkey, it's almost inevitable.
Some Greeks may be dismayed at the idea of finding Turkish in their DNA, given the centuries of occupation and bad blood.
I can't be a hater, though; I love Turkish music and dance (What's better than a tsiftetelli? NOTHING.), and the Turks I've met have been pretty cool people. I embrace my Turkish roots, despite the current political climate and the undeniable problems of the past. For me there are no "wrong answers", as far as DNA goes. I got nothin' but love.
Now Forget Everything I Just Said, Because Percentages Lie.
Well, not everything I said.
But take it all with a Gibraltar-sized grain of salt, because the companies handle your DNA differently. It's not your DNA, which is constant, but rather variations in the test populations used by the companies, the software programs they use, and the way they interpret the results.
So with all that said, DO NOT get too caught up in your percentages. I know - I just spent several paragraphs talking about percentages, but here's the thing - they are all estimates that are going to change with time. Much of the data the companies use is based on the DNA of available sample populations in their databases. Not every group out there has been sampled, either.
My percentages have changed three times since I've been tested, and that's just on Ancestry's site. Things get refined over time. DNA testing is more of a 'Big Picture' thing - don't get too worked up about the details. It's still a fairly new science and it's not perfect by any stretch.
When I first got my Ancestry DNA results, I was listed as "Italy/Greece", as the DNA between countries was so similar. As I mentioned above, in the past year they've refined it even more, becoming "Greece/Turkey/Albania", with a separate Italy component.
I'm not sure how that decision was arrived at, but I'm not a geneticist, and as interested as I am in the results, reading about the scientific processes (and haplogroups and clades and sub-clades) frankly makes me want to take an aspirin and lie down.
Ok, So Maybe I Want To Do This...
So maybe despite all this you're toying with the idea of getting yourself tested. What does it involve? Well, you basically drool into a vial. I know...sounds awesome. But you can do it in the privacy of your own home. You box the vial up and send it off, and 1-2 months later you get your results.
And the nice thing is, as the science gets better and more populations are tested, your results will also refine over time.
Which testing company should you use? There are a few of them out there, so talk to people who have had it done and spend some time on Google checking different services out. They vary in price, but it's usually about $100, give or take. Various companies frequently have specials that will knock $20-$40 off the price, so maybe check back with them periodically and snag it during a sale.
Ancestry.com is probably the biggest dog out there now, which is beneficial in that they have a huge database and it's growing all the time. That means more accuracy and more DNA cousins. It's easy and their graphics of your results are quite nice and very easy to read. I'm not promoting them specifically and have no affiliation with them beyond having subscribed for many years - it's just that I'm really familiar with them. All of this is your call.
Something to be aware of - DNA testing can be fascinating and horizon-expanding, but in some cases it can really knock the wind out of you. Some folks have found out a parent was not their real parent, or that they are not the ethnicity they had always been so invested in. There may be some emotional peril involved. Possibly drama. Know this going in.
There are sometimes routine disappointments, too. It seems almost weekly there's a poster on Ancestry.com's forum who is confused and disappointed about their results. "But there's no Native American ancestry listed! My family has Native American ancestry! We have an ancestor who was a Cherokee princess!"
Ah, the Cherokee princess. God love 'er. An inordinate amount of Americans seem to claim ancestry from such an illustrious but anonymous ancestress. She is a staple in the genealogy world, and needless to say, she is unlikely at best. She would have had to have spawned like a coral polyp to have so many descendants.
But family lore is a powerful thing, and if you grow up with an idea about your identity, it can be a real blow to find out it may not be true.
For most of us, however, DNA testing is just fun and informative. It can point us in new directions in our genealogical research. It can connect us with DNA cousins from all over. It can open doors to exciting new parts of the world we now "belong to" and reaffirm our place in our big, more-connected-than-you-think family on this tiny blue dot in space. And who doesn't need a little more of that?
*UPDATE as of April 2021 - As expected, results are refined over time and the percentages change. Ancestry now has me listed 76% Greece/Turkey/Albania (which is how they're sorting things out as of now), 19% Southern Italy, 3% Balkans, and 2% Cyprus. This is the first time I've seen Cyprus listed anywhere. So the point is - take it all with a grain of salt.