Pandora’s Box


The DNA adventure begins with 23andMe. As the sun goes down on the first day of 2013, I’m getting ready to fill up a little sample bottle with spit. I’ve been solemnly warned about the possible consequences of opening this box. “You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate. Once you obtain your genetic information, the knowledge is irrevocable.”

It is to be hoped that no one is ordering these kits without already having given that some thought. At 48, free of major scary diseases, and with none on either side of my family, I’m pretty confident I can handle what surprises may be left. Those who know my tendency to hypochondria and anxiety would probably prefer I stuck to the ancestry side of this information. But the thought of contributing data to scientific research is too tempting. I’ve been reading the research produced in archaeology with human and animal DNA studies for some time now, and it’s an exciting field. Of the negative consequences, insurance companies using this information against me in some way is my biggest concern – but again, given the fine state of health of me and my nearest relatives, it’s just a concern, not a worry.

On the other hand, this next foray into DNA analysis may not turn out to be that much of an adventure after all. It’s been a couple years since my mom’s mtDNA was analyzed. At that time, Family Tree DNA was the option I picked, and it was a Mother’s Day present. With genealogical records tending to favor male ancestry, I really thought we should have some insight about deep maternal ancestry. As expected, it was European (but there was always a slight chance of origins on two other continents, since my maternal grandmother’s ancestors were colonists and frontier people in North America from 1622 on). And it was really European. According to that test, my mom’s maternal ancestry reaches back to a now-rare haplotype that is associated with the earliest paleolithic inhabitants of Europe. And a lot of other places as well, like South Asia. 55,000 years is a long time! Also as I’d hoped, there were indications of correlation with some Gaelic surnames, but as with all DNA analysis, it’s hard to know what these things really mean in a concrete, significant, historical way.

We also get email every time a “match” turns up, but so far this has not led to any stunning genealogical revelations. A match is a possibly very distant cousin, whose relationship to my mom probably predates the relevant historical records. It’s hard to find time to add yet another bunch of action items to my already neglected inbox (it’s a system I call Thinking About Getting Things Done). One of my goals for this little break from professional life in between semesters is to catch up with several family history projects. Exploring the Family Tree DNA “matches” is one, and 23andMe will be another. Then there’s the old-fashioned hard work of paper trail genealogy that needs to get brought up to date as well.


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