Delve into your history with DNAThere’s something quite fascinating about family trees and knowing where you come from.
We all imagine we’re related to some historical genius, a great author or famous explorer that explains where our own talents come from. Now there’s a new twist on the old method of delving into the archives, and all you have to do is spit.
DNA tests are no longer just for paternity disputes and criminal investigations. They’ve gone recreational, and a test can tell you where in the world your ancestors come from.
Travel search site Momondo is encouraging people to think about the world in a different way by tracing their genetic roots. First it surveyed 7,200 people in 18 countries, including 400 South Africans, asking them where they think they’re from. Most believed they could trace their ancestors back to just one or two countries. But they’re usually wrong, says Lasse Skole Hansen of Momondo. We’re all more connected to the rest of the world than we realise, since most people’s geographical background shows genetic roots in four global regions.
Momondo then teamed up with the experts at Ancestry, a specialist in family trees, historical records and DNA tests, and invited 67 people from around world to take a DNA test. The process is beautifully filmed, first showing the volunteers emphatically stating who they are and where they come from and which foreigners they don’t much like. A few weeks later their results are revealed, showing that they have ancestors from those nations in their genes.
Maybe racism and hatred would be less rife if such tests were made compulsory, one of the participants suggests.
“It was wonderful that we were able to capture that,” says Brad Argent of Ancestry. “Very few people get what they expected because their ancestry comes from different places over a 2,000 year period of history – you’re looking at 80 generations. It’s either confirmed something they always thought about themselves, like ‘I always knew I was Irish’, or it’s a surprise, like ‘how come I have Jewish or Scandinavian DNA?’ For most people there’s something that helps them understand who they are.”
The science behind DNA tests is complicated, Argent says, but the consumer experience is simple. “Ten years ago this couldn’t have been done, it would have been way too hard and too expensive and taken a long time. These days it only takes seconds to get this data out of your DNA.”
First your DNA cells are isolated from your spit sample. Of the billions of pieces of data in your genetic code the scientists look at almost 700,000 markers that tell them where your ancestors might have come from up to 2,000 years ago.
Ancestry has compiled data banks of samples from people it is confident come from a particular ethnic group, such as Irish, Celtic or Western European. “We got those by finding people who live in that area and whose ancestors lived in that area going back as far as we can in historical records,” he says. When a number of people have been found from that group and the scientists believe it represents a relatively pure line, that DNA becomes a sample that your DNA is matched against, to look for traces of it in your make-up.
“Because of the nature of the science it’s an estimate, it’s not absolute, but we are moving much closer to that,” Argent says. “With 2-million samples in the database we can get better at the quality of that estimate and get better at understanding what your DNA is telling us.”
DNA from a black South African would probably show they are descended from quite a limited genetic pool, Argent says, since Africans generally tend to be from one or two ethnic groups. Those descended from slaves will have a greater mix because their ancestors were taken away from their own environment and thrown into one big melting pot. White South Africans will have strong European connections because of the migrations.
“What I love about this campaign is that Momondo is trying to get people to think outside who they are and realise we are all connected. Maybe if we can see that through the process of DNA we will have a different view about people,” Argent says.
Watch the DNA Journey here: www.youtube.com/watch?v