Finding Your Roots: DNA Testing Yields Answers

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown December 15, 2014 11:25

Isabelle MacLean Drown

“The way your scars are raised and roped tells me that you have either Asian or African background,” the plastic surgeon asserted.

“Couldn’t be!” I reacted, looking with him at the healing burns on my arms back in the 1980s.

Over the previous 30 years I had carried out my own family research, and had taught and written about genealogy. A Scottish father and a Polish mother with lineage to the 1600s was my proof.

“Well, you better go back and check your research because I am never wrong in these things,” the doctor shot back.

I flew out of his office to my parents’ home. “Mom, what do you know about me having Asian or African ancestry?”

“I was told that Genghis Kahn’s grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded our village in the early 1200s,” she began over a cup of tea. “They killed all of the men and impregnated many of the women. As far as I know, my people have lived in the same Polish village as far back as records go, and this is part of their oral history before the 1600s.”

At the Royal Museum of British Columbia, I found a huge map of Genghis and Kublai Khan’s conquests, and it did indeed include our family’s Polish village, Besko.

That village was hardly alone.

Evidently, when the Mongol Hordes conquered villages in the 12th Century, Genghis had the first pick of the most beautiful women. Sons and grandsons – both legitimate and otherwise, and from Kublai forward – multiplied and kept multiplying through the generations. The popular statistic today found in any article about Genghis is that one out of every 200 living males is his descendant.

Still, I didn’t know how to trace my mother’s lines back any further than the 1600s, and 20 years ago hit a dead end. That changed with the advent of DNA testing, offered for the past six years or so by a number of firms for about $100. So I went online and ordered the kit from ancestry.com.

Would I have to provide a blood, hair or skin sample, I wondered? As it turned out, all I had to do was spit in a vial, mail it back and wait. In about four weeks the results arrived.

The DNA test found I was 4 percent Asian. The family story was true, and the doctor deserves an apology.

My sister also took the test, but she showed no Asian markers at all. She was only British and Western European, while my markers were 4 percent Asian with the remainder split almost evenly between British and Eastern European.

My sister is blond and blue-eyed, and I’m red-haired and brown-eyed – so how did all that work? And how could I have three daughters with brown eyes like me and one son with blue eyes, like his father?

I looked up award-winning computer engineer and genealogist Stephen Morse’s website, stevemorse.org. It explains in layman’s language recessive genes, chromosomes and DNA variations. I admit I had to read it more than once, but it answered some of my questions.

So do you want to take the DNA test yourself? Go online to check out providers and costs.

Ancestral DNA tests offered by ancestry.com, National Geographic and various labs do not indicate predisposition to various diseases, as medical tests might. Instead, these tests evaluate large numbers of genetic variations across a person’s entire genome.

The results are compared with those of others who have taken the test to determine a person’s ethnic background. Because different test providers have different databases, results can vary. Most companies offering tests provide online forums to allow those tested to share and discuss results with others, which may allow them to discover previously unknown relationships.

On a larger scale, according to the National Institutes of Health, combined genetic ancestry test results can be used by scientists to explore the history of populations as they arose, migrated and mixed with other groups.

To finish, I heard a woman on the radio saying she thought all of this DNA testing was “for the birds,” and she didn’t believe it. Her test, you see, came back 4 percent Asian – and she knows for a fact that she doesn’t have any Asian ancestry.

I wonder if we are cousins.

Until next time, good luck with your ancestral research.

Isabelle Drown is a genealogy expert living in Sonora. Email her at roots@seniorfan.com.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown December 15, 2014 11:25
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