Thursday, February 12, 2015

Me n' My DNA

Recently, two of our boys had a family history project at school. They were supposed to interview a relative about their heritage: what countries their ancestors came from, what cultural remnants were familiar to them, things like that. “No offense, Mom,” one of them said to me, “but I’m going with Dad’s side because yours is too complicated.” I wasn’t offended. He’s right, in a way.
I have a regular family, the Vensel side. Grandparents, siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, and all the memories and stories that go along with growing up with extended family. I heard the stories about first jobs and first homes, about family businesses and family feuds. Divorces, deaths, and other tragedies. I was part of this web, this network that existed long before I dropped down to take my place.
And yet, I was adopted so I have no genetic ties to my family. When I was twenty years old, I met my other family, the people who are biologically related to me. Over the years, I’ve formed some very nice relationships, especially with my natural mother. And so there are more stories, more details and another entire network in which I take my late and in some ways, honorary place.
I’ve always been interested in ancestry, beginning, obviously, with my desire to know my biological roots. I like stories about people finding long-lost relatives, twins reuniting, researchers discovering a connection to someone of historical significance. Yet when it comes to matters of my own ancestry, I find I’m probably more interested in my first family’s history, given that it bears more relevance to the family unit in which I began my life. When I think about discovering ancestors, I think about it in terms of my grandparents and what I knew of them, or my parents and what they know of those who came before. I know that the ancestry of the biological side probably has much more to do with me, and yet, I can’t help where my interests lie.
For Christmas, my family gave me a kit to test my DNA. Lots of companies are doing this now. You give them a small amount of saliva; they’ll give you a percentage breakdown of where your ancestors originated. This, for some reason, really interested me. When asked about countries of origin, I always say “Germany and Poland” because that’s what I know for sure. It always seemed like enough. As I waited for the results, however, I was hoping for much more. I wanted one wildcard, something unexpected, maybe a smidge of Asian or African, maybe a dash of Native American. I didn’t care what, just something I didn’t know. I have to say, when the results came, I had an unexpected little wave of emotion. I felt very possessive of that little report and in a strange way, proud. The list of percentages seemed like something much more concrete than the trees of either of my families. It seemed like something uniquely particular to me (which of course it was), and something unrelated to anyone else (which of course it wasn’t).
The report, an “ethnicity estimate,” gives a breakdown of percentages and a handy map to show you the areas identified in the report. What mine said:

I am 100% European. I’m 39% Eastern European, a section on the map highlighted as most of Poland and Ukraine. This is no surprise. My natural mother’s father had a Polish name. Also, I’m 23% Western European. This is Germany and France, basically. Two natural grandparents had very German names, so this is also expected. And next, my wildcard, the unexpected: 23% Scandinavian. I love this! The map shows this to mean Norway (home of Per Petterson, one of my favorite writers!) and Sweden (home of Bergman, one of my favorite filmmakers!). I think this is where I started feeling that rush of individuality. Next, 10% Great Britain (London, one of my favorite cities!). To finish, 3% Finland/Northwest Russia, 2% Italy/Greece.
What can I say? I love my results and knowing that I’m the only person in the world with these results. I suppose others may feel the same way, but if you have full-siblings, I’d wager their results would be pretty similar. And although I didn’t get anything terribly shocking or exotic, it still gives me one more piece to the puzzle of where I began, and it feels completely scientific and objective and not subject to the whims of anyone else. And it brings a certain clarity because of that. It can be a very simple question, this “Where did you come from?” The greater question, I think, has more to do with where you’ll go from here.


  1. What a fascinating breakdown, Mary - and I can understand your excitement at the wildcards. They have been successfully breaking down Scandanavian genes for years - especially the Finnish which is a really unusual and individual culture. Their language for example, bears no resemblance to anything else in Europe. However, I do wonder at the 10% Great Britain section. Thanks to successive invasions from the continent we are quite a mongrel race over here in the UK and the last I heard geneticists had a real problem separating our genes from those of folks in Southern Denmark and Northern Germany, which were the areas most of the Anglo-Saxons came from. Things may have improved in the science but I'm not sure there is such a thing as British DNA. Still fascinating, nevertheless. Must get my parents to spit on a stick. ;)

  2. Loved this post. It will be so useful to those who are dithering about whether to go for the DNA kit or not. Perhaps the kit should be given to those with low self esteem to help them feel special. Just a lateral thought, Mary. And congratulations for being 0% Neanderthal! Lol.

  3. Thanks, Susanna, that's so interesting. Yes, to break down certain areas in close proximity seems somewhat imprecise. We are a nation of mongrels over here so I take your point! Noted: the DNA analysis is labeled an "estimate" so it is just that. Even so, I'm going to proudly claim my British DNA whether it exists or not! Rosalind, in some cases, DNA analysis may make people feel less special. For example, lots of people here think they have Native American ancestry and very few actually do. So if you want to keep your unverified family stories intact, do not test!


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka