Sept. 30, 2006, 7:03PM
Who knew I'd be so ethnic? Where my roots led me
By ASHLEY HERZOG Houseton Chronicle
The idea of taking a DNA test first came to me in August, after I read a Time magazine article entitled "Diving into the Gene Pool." The author, Carolina A. Miranda describes herself as an "olive-skinned Latina," but a DNA analysis test uncovered connections to places likesuch as Poland and Mozambique. Intrigued, I decided to order my own analysis kit from DNA Tribes, a company that promised to trace my ancestry back to ancient times.
I didn't expect my experience to be anything like Miranda's. For starters, I was fairly certain of my ethnic heritage: Irish on my mother's side, German and Polish on my father's. This genetic profile was evident both in my family's cultural heritage and my appearance: I have the fair skin and blond hair that is typical of Northern Europeans. I assumed that my DNA analysis would show strong links to Northern Europe, with perhaps a smattering of other European blood on some distant branch of
the family tree. But like Miranda, I was in for a surprise.
The first part of the test identified "deep ancestral roots," listing the top 20 places in the world that my ancestors likely came from. I was shocked to see that my strongest genetic roots were in Spain, followed closely by the Himalayan region of India. Other top matches included Turkey, Norway, Romania and Saudi Arabia — places I'd never dreamed of identifying with. And I apparently should not waste time searching for long-lost relatives at Oktoberfest parties this year: Germany graced the bottom of the list, barely beating Northern Italy as a contributor to my genetic profile.
The second part of the test listed 20 places in the modern world where my genetic relatives are likely to be found today. Because of our shared Spanish origins, I have strong ties to the people of present-day Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina. And while the test suggested that many of my relatives — such as the Swiss and Norwegians — look like me, others bear no resemblance. Outside of the Hispanic world, my closest relatives can be found in northeast India.
My family was just as baffled as I was by the results. There are plenty of possibilities: For example, my mother's ancestors might have been "Black Celts," or Irish citizens of Spanish descent. But there are few clear answers. Without extensive genealogical research or possibly a time machine, most of my genetic connections will remain mysteries.
Although the DNA test couldn't explain how people from across the world came together to create me, a white Christian girl living in the American Midwest, it did prove many of my assumptions false. I took the test thinking that my ancestors farmed potatoes in Ireland and fought in Charlemagne's noble army, and some of them did. But others bowed to Mecca and weathered harsh winters in the Himalayan foothills. Without a DNA test, I never would have known it.
I'm not alone in my ignorance. Geneticists claim that many Americans' genetic profiles are as diverse as mine, and few precisely reflect the cultural identities we embrace.
If this is true, it raises some interesting questions.
First, what do terms likesuch as "race" and "ethnicity" really mean? Do they describe a person's actual genetic makeup, or do they relate more to social affiliations with a particular group? Since I have genetic links to several populations that are considered nonwhite, should I start checking the "multiracial" box on government surveys and job applications? These questions are difficult ones, and every answer is highly debatable.
In any case, DNA tests have proved one thing: People of different ethnic identities often have more in common than they think.
Discovering your true ancestral origins can be confusing and even painful. But it can also be the first step toward greater appreciation for people around the globe.
Herzog is a journalism student at Ohio University in Athens and a graduate of The Woodlands High School.