My Genetic Genealogy Experience

About a year ago, a few members of my family and I decided to order kits from 23 and Me so we could learn increase our knowledge of our ancestors. I had been on for a few years, but my family tree had reached an unfortunate dead end as a result of slavery. I figured that the autosomal, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosome tests could give me some of the answers that I was searching for, but I ended up leaving the experience with more questions than answers. Here is a list of some of the confusing issues that I have confronted during my journey through genetic genealogy.

1. People who share DNA with one relative, but not the others.

I made a point of getting my mother and my uncle tested with 23 and Me since they are the last living children of my grandparents. I had assumed that any person who shared DNA segments with one of them would automatically share them with the other, but I was wrong. There were often cases where people would share DNA segments with my mom and me, but not my uncle. Likewise, there were plenty of cases where people would share DNA segments with my uncle, but not my mother. I guess I should have expected this given the nature of recombination. It just means that my mother and my uncle inherited different segments DNA segments from my grandparents and these matches shared those distinct segments.

2. Adoptees in need of help.

Sites like 23 and Me have a pretty large populations of adoptees who are trying to connect with their biological families. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by one–a distant relative projected to be somewhere between a 3rd and 6th cousin to my uncle’s profile (and not mine… see #1). I made up my mind that I would be as helpful as possible, but there was one problem–I had absolutely no clue where this person could possibly have fit in my family tree. I tried as hard as I could to come up with a potential scenario on how we could be related, but I felt absolutely useless. In the end, we became Facebook friends and I resolved to locate other relatives who may be able to help this person on their quest to learn about their biological family.

3. Skin Tone and African Ancestry

Testing with 23 and Me forced my family to throw out the myth that darker skinned people have a higher percentage of African ancestry. My dark skinned cousin received her results before everyone else in the family. When she came back as 81% African, we all assumed that the rest of us would come back much lower than that. Not so. In spite of being one of the lighter-skinned people in my family (though I am still medium brown), I came back as 87% African. So did my dark-skinned uncle. The biggest surprise was that my mother, who is also of medium brown complexion, came back as 91% African. In the end, we were forced to check our assumptions about what our African ancestors looked like.

4. Missing Native American Ancestry

Like most people, I have a lot of legends in my family about Native American ancestors. Therefore, I was surprised when my results showed that I was only about 2% Native American. Even more surprising was the fact that my 2% came primarily from my father’s side of the family. My mother has pictures of her supposedly half Native American paternal grandmother with her hair parted down the middle with two long “Cherokee” braids. My mother’s maternal grandfather was supposedly half Native American as well. As for my father, his grandmother was supposedly a full-blooded Native American. Needless  to say, my 2% didn’t really go along with my family’s oral history. Neither did my mother’s 0.6% or my father’s 3%. Still, it is important to note that 23 and Me relies on reference populations in order to assign ancestry to DNA segments. The Native American population is notoriously difficult to locate and resistant to testing given how many tribes have been wiped out as a result of this nation’s historic colonization and genocide. It is possible that some of my family’s Native American DNA is assigned to other ethnicities, but for now, I am content with knowing that at least some small portion of my family’s oral history has been confirmed.

5. Trolls

I guess it should have occurred to me that there is no such thing as an internet community without trolls. Nonetheless, I was taken aback when I noticed that there were people whose sole contribution to the 23 and Me forums has been conflict mostly based on race. I guess the entry fee of testing is not enough to keep troublemakers out.

In spite of these surprises, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn so much about my family history. Now I will have a lot more information to pass on to future generations.


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About Spencer

Spencer T. Clayton is a typical millennial who believed his mother when she told him that he was capable of accomplishing great things (and as a result has amassed a large amount of student loan debt). When he isn’t blogging, he is either out with friends, writing and performing music, or busy working as an Executive Pastor and Consultant while simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Public Affairs.

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