In the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in DNA ancestry testing services such as 23andMe. This is mainly a consequence of years spent living and travelling abroad and fielding questions about myself. In Japan especially, I was frequently asked for breakdowns of where I’m from, ancestrally speaking, with people’s curiosity sometimes fuelling the spread of misinformation. For instance, I once told a student my last name was Italian but most of my family had lived in the United States for many generations. A couple weeks later I heard from another student, “So your father is Italian and your mother is Native American?” I saw how that could have morphed; it was like my students were playing a game of telephone! I also grew up with a sibling who, although we do resemble each other a lot, is perceived as “Irish looking” at first sight, whereas I’m not. I have several memories from a very young age where I was asked to ‘explain’ this to kids who knew we were sisters. So while I don’t believe I have any obligation to furnish numbers for myself, my cumulative experiences and genuine curiosity in my history drove me to pay for the service.
I’m glad I did 23andMe, and I recommend it to others. The test is easy to take and read, and the DNA relative tool would be very helpful to anyone looking to connect with others to track specific ancestors. I found the results surprising in a way, but my revelation was opposite of what’s shown in the company’s commercials: the map was more concentrated than I expected. I would not have been surprised to see Native American genetic markers given the location of many generations of my ancestors and rumors passed down from my grandmother. I also expected a greater percentage of Southern and Eastern Europe to show, since I was aware of great (or second great) grandparents who were probably from Hungary, Poland and Italy. Instead the test indicated a higher percentage of Northwestern European than I expected (83%), with the greatest specified population being “British & Irish.” I knew this, but the numbers still surprised me. Southern and Eastern Europe are less represented, and in fact it seems like we can’t possibly be as Italian as one grandfather always claimed. This experience has encouraged me to do more research in the future, possibly to track specific ancestors. Without a more detailed examination of personal histories, general results such as this are interesting but limited in what they can communicate.
Here is part of a summary of my ancestry composition to give a visual of my results and the general look of 23andMe. Note that the full results are more expansive and detailed. For a more technical understanding of the method and accuracy of 23andMe specifically, check out their website here.