As a mid-life gift to myself, I had my DNA tested by 23 and Me, one of several companies that give you personalized genetic reports in exchange for your money, saliva, and the privilege of using your DNA in scientific research. I found out that I’m short and freckled (wow… so that’s what those spots are…), and my blood may clot a little too easily, a useful trait if my arm should be hacked off in battle, but not so adaptive in this age of global air travel.
I also discovered that I am genetically 2.8 per cent Neanderthal. Joke you may but that is a fairly average amount for someone of non-African ancestry. Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and many East Asians and indigenous North and South Americans have sizable amounts of ancient Denisovan genetic material as well. This is so cool! If you are not a sub-Saharan African person, you probably are carrying around genes of other hominid species who lived and died out millennia ago. Depending on your background, when you see an artist’s conception of a Neanderthal’s head based on excavated skull and facial bones, you may be looking at an image of your long-ago grandparent. Palaeontologists might be studying the skeletal remains from the cave cemetery of your prehistoric Denisovan family.
Moving ahead forty thousand years, my 23 and Me heritage results confirmed family lore. I have had a long fascination with First Nations culture, myth, and spirituality and I was hoping that 23 and Me would give me genetic permission, by revealing a sequence or two of indigenous genes, to adopt some of the spiritual practices of the Ojibwe people of my Great Lakes homeland. Instead, the test corroborated my family’s paper history; my ancestors came to Ontario as opportunistic land thieves. They were Swiss Mennonites fleeing persecution, landless Scots, and hungry Protestant Irish.
I thought about my attraction to First Nations’ cultures. I admire indigenous Great Lakes spirituality for the way it connects people to each other as well as non-human beings in the realms of earth, sky, and water. A familial respect is accorded to every spirit in the ecological community. In contrast, Christianity is weak on these points. I also reflected on my one dimensional view of my ancestors as robbers of First Nations’ land. They were that, but they were also peaceable, hardworking farmers who craved simple meals and safety.
Ultimately, doing the 23 and Me test was part of my process of rejecting Christianity once and for all. I began to see Christianity as a dysfunctional, authoritarian religion that medieval power brokers foisted upon illiterate peasants who had been getting along quite nicely as Pagans. I could not in good conscience appropriate Great Lakes indigenous spirituality but I could explore pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic spirituality. I looked to northern European aboriginal traditions and their modern adaptations for spiritual sustenance.
I learned about the Wheel of the Year, Celtic and Germanic mythology, and Naturalistic Paganism. Based on my reading, I cobbled together a framework for honouring all of our ancestors, celebrating seasonal rhythms, and connecting to my ecological and social environment. Transferring pre-Christian northern European spiritual practices to rural Ontario has been quite natural due to the climatic, geographic, agricultural, and ecological similarity between the two places. Yule has more meaning to me than Christmas did.
DNA testing is not for the faint of heart. The 23 and Me relative finder blew the door off of one closet in my family, and we have welcomed a new cousin into the clan. The genetic health reports require a rudimentary knowledge of genetics and human biology and the information they contain can be life changing. I’ve had to come to terms with the confirmation of my short stature, but others might discover predispositions to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other dreadful diseases. However, if you want to know more about your heritage, your family, and your health, a DNA test is an obvious starting point.
Two years after testing, I still visit the 23 and Me community website regularly, and read about other people’s experiences with DNA testing. Adoptees find families. People who didn’t know their grandparents discover their genetic heritage. Sick people receive support and information. In other words, when people learn about their DNA, they may feel a little special, but they also strengthen their ties to our great big 7 billion member human family. Each and every one of us is the child of sturdy people who survived plagues, war, bad hair days, and myriad calamities. Our ancestors, royal and pauper, had a 100 per cent success rate in the game of life. We face the future with our illustrious, amazing, inherited DNA.
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”
(Editor’s note – learning about Ancestors through DNA testing is a big part of my spirituality, and I have some resources on doing so, and tons of data – including actual Denisovan and other ancient DNA. If there is interest, leave a comment, and I could post about the spiritual power of DNA testing.)
Very exciting. Thanks for writing about it. I had my DNA tested through National Geographic, which doesn’t provide the medical history, but I felt much the same way about the experience as you did. It opens up the past in a new way. Here is the ending of my post about it:
The genome history helps fill in my reveries about ancestors leading their particular lives a very long time ago. I picture a family walking in Eastern Europe, another farming in Italy, or a group crossing the water from Denmark, none of them knowing that far in the future, the paths of their descendants will come together in me. I imagine myself greeting them from their future and watching their surprised smiles as they realize who I am and as I tell them how often I’ve been thinking of them.
I’m interested in doing this myself and would love to learn more. Is 23 and Me the best service or are there others to consider? Thanks for posting.
While there are many factors as well as pluses and minuses of each company, 23andme is a good way to go. I’ve found several advantages of their test, such as an Ancestry composition diagram that shows separate chromosomes, full data on autosomal, mt and Y DNA, and a large database of relative matches. You can always test with other companies later, of course. 23andme now has an Ancestry only test for only $99. -Jon
Brock- Thank-you! That is an interesting way of thinking about and honouring your ancestors. You have a pretty neat website too!
Xulacat- I think 23 and Me provided excellent service, and I was as interested in the health reports as the ancestry information. As Brock says, National Geographic gives you information on ancestry, and there is also a company called Ancestry that does DNA testing fairly reasonably.
I was able to upload my 23 and Me files for further analysis to Promethease ($5 for a more detailed health report), Athletigen (free for info on physiology), and Gedmatch (free for cool info including more detailed heritage info), and to another site to further define my maternal/mitochondrial DNA line. What you can find out for $200 is pretty amazing. We are witnessing the birth of a whole new era in medicine. I would also take Jon up on his offer if you want more information. He is a wealth of knowledge.
And to Jon, Yes, I am interested in your thoughts/experiences/point of view on the spiritual power of DNA testing. I found that receiving my results was unexpectedly life changing and I am fascinated by other’s experience of the process.
My parents did genealogy for over 30 years, but branches came to a dead-end when they couldn’t find records. We knew we had ancestors who went from Scotland to Ireland, but we didn’t know if they married Irish people. My parents did the DNA analysis and we found out the we are indeed Irish. We found out some things we already knew: we are also English, Scottish, Danish, Dutch, French, and German, but we also found out that we are Basque, Finnish, Georgian, and Middle Eastern!
I think if people find out that they have ancestry they didn’t know about, then hopefully they will have a new appreciation for those cultures and this will help dissolve prejudices.
As your experience reflects, maybe it will also keep people from appropriating cultures they aren’t actually a part of. When my parents started doing genealogy, I was hoping that they’d find out that we were Native American, because I was really interested in learning about NA tribes, culture, and religion. Now I know I’m not Native American, and while I still have respect and interest for their cultures, I know now to appreciate them, but not appropriate them.
Sometimes though, people’s identities turn out to be much different from what they’ve always believed about themselves. I have a friend whose family stories said they were Cherokee and they were even on the Dawes rolls, but DNA analysis shows that she’s not Native American at all and since she really thought that was part of her identity, she is having trouble accepting that is it not.
So some people, like me, are going to be thrilled to find where their roots are, but others, like my friend, might face an identity crisis.
Good points. Some thoughts – It’s a quirk of DNA, but Cherokee in particular (more than any other tribe) often doesn’t show up even when a significant amount is present. It’s not known why – though early contact with Europeans, resulting in a Cherokee genepool in ~1800 that already had a lot of European in it, is a possible reason. Also, because we only hold the DNA of a tiny (though representative) fraction of our Ancestors, it’s possible that someone with exactly 0 Native American DNA has plenty of Native Ancestors. Appropriation itself is a whole other discussion. For your friend, if there are documented Ancestors on the Dawes rolls, then it’s very likely she has Native Ancestors, even if no Native DNA is left. At the same time, there are plenty of people who previously thought they would have Native DNA, and then found that tests didn’t show any, and probably have no Native Ancestors. This blog post by a friend of mine covers the possibilities very well. – Jon
I’m thinking about the issues raised here and in Renee’s original post about how we identify with, appropriate, or simply appreciate earlier cultures.
Is it odd that if we thought we were descended from a group but it turned out we weren’t, that we should feel different about ourselves? After all, the actual distinctive traits that are handed down genetically are relatively few–some physical ones, perhaps a tendency towards an illness, perhaps a talent (like music or math). But mostly each of us today is the interaction of our temperaments and the culture we grew up in. Which in theory leaves us to appreciate and even revere any culture we want to.
To think that people’s particular skills, limitations, habits, etc. are the products to any significant degree of ancestral groups can lead, and has led, to overgeneralized judgments about types of peoples. I don’t see any of that in this discussion at all, but the identity issues are really strong for people, as has been said. I see myself a little differently because of certain results from the test, but I also shake myself a bit to remind myself that the difference is in my head and not in my genome.
OK, with plenty of interest, I’ll work something up. Hmmmm….. It doesn’t look feasible to fit this in before Samhain, and even if I did, newbies wouldn’t have results before Samhain. Leaving it to Samhain 2017 seems like a long wait. Thoughts? -Jon
January/February? Some people receive the tests as presents at holiday time and get their results then. Imbolc has significance as a time of renewal in the cycle of life/year… as appropriate as Samhain.