For Christmas this year, my wife got me something I’ve been wanting to have for the past several months: an Ancestry.com DNA kit. Now the true reason I wanted one to begin with has more to do with a short story idea I had than any major desire to research into my own genetic background. But, like many of us, I’ve always been curious about what that background might entail.
The first time I voiced my desire to get a DNA kit to her was while watching the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander. It’s a show set in Scotland and all the dudes on the show look cool in their kilts. I’ve always wanted to wear a kilt, but wouldn’t dare do so unless I actually had Scottish heritage myself. Otherwise it would be like that time in college when I bought a Rasta hat, only to be asked by a real Rastafarian if I was a believer or just wearing it for the fashion. His question, unfortunately, was my very first clue that the hats were associated with religious beliefs, and that people of that religion might not be too cool with me appropriating it for the sake of fashion. If I was going to go around appropriating Scottish culture, I wanted to at least have my genetic ducks in a row. I announced, during Outlander, that I was going to get an Ancestry DNA kit and if I was anything greater than, say, 10 percent Scottish I would be purchasing a kilt and tartan which I would then wear exclusively, at least until winter.
Unfortunately, I already knew that I was probably not all that Scottish to begin with. From everything I’ve been told, I come from Franco-German stock, with ancestors originating in Alsace Lorraine back when it was part of Germany. But then again, I reasoned, that’s only on my grandpa Fritzius’s side. I know nothing about my dad’s mother’s people, the Blaylocks, nor anything about the genetic history of my mother’s people, the Dunnams and the Huttos. There had also been some rumors of Native American blood somewhere on my Grandma Blaylock’s side–rumors which she always seemed cagey about, and which my dad believed must be true since Grandma was being so cagey about it all. Dad also suspected that we might have some Jewish ancestry woven in there somewhere too, which, considering our alleged European origins, was not beyond the realm of possibility. And the fact that my paternal grandparents vehemently denied this as a possibility only served to make the rumor seem stronger. As much as I longed for Scottish heritage, I was also completely okay with Native American or Jewish heritage. Or a combo of the three would be even better.
The wife ordered my DNA kit, which arrived just in time for Christmas. The kit basically involved spitting into a little plastic tube, pouring some spit fixer in after it, and shakin’ it up but good. (The downside, for me at least, was that in order to get a solid DNA sample, I had to refrain from consuming anything but water for an hour or so before the test–lest I turn up as genetically descended from a Dorito.)
As per instructions, I put the tube of fixed spit in their postage paid package, filled out my info online, and sent it off. Immediately, I began dreaming of the exotic lands my people may have come from. I didn’t actively start shopping for kilts, or anything–cause I’d first need to know my clan tartan, and all–but I could always dream. I was looking forward to receiving my results, all spelled out, with no actual research required on my part. After all, I spent a goodly number of years working in a public library in which I devoted more than a little bit of time ridiculing Genealogy People. In case you’ve not encountered any or are not one yourself, Genealogy People are folks, usually in their 70s, who frequent libraries looking for local records that will lead them to their ancestors, or who use library computers to sign in to their Ancestry.com accounts to do such leg work. To a person, Genealogy People are completely unafraid of accosting library staff, or anyone else who has the misfortune to venture into their proximity, and going on and on and on at extraordinary length about the mind-numbingly boring details of all of their research. I once had to gnaw off my own leg to escape such an encounter. God love `em for having a hobby and being passionate about something in life, but I refuse to become a Genealogy People.
Over the following weeks, Ancestry.com would send emails apologizing that my results were taking so long. They said they were completely backed up with spit vials from the Christmas rush and were getting to mine as quickly as they could. They would then further tease by offering to let me research surnames on their site so I could get a head start. I toyed around with this, trying very hard not to get excited about any of it, lest I catch the dreaded and fearsome Genealogy People virus. I did note that there were some Dunnams who’d turned up in census data in Scotland, but they were not necessarily ones related to me specifically. I’d have to do actual research, or get a full Ancestry.com membership to see if someone else had already done the research, before I could know any of that. If you thought about it, though, regardless of where the Dunnams, Huttos, Blaylocks, or Fritziuses were known to have lived, I could be partly anything, really. There were a good number of generations and a couple of continents between my grandpa’s Alsace Lorraine ancestors and today, with four contributing genetic donors for each successive soul along my genetic line. I might be part African, for all I knew–though my wife took particular glee in shooting down that likelihood. I was hoping for something that at least seemed exotic and distant. The possibilities were intoxicating.
“Ooh! Ooooh!” I exclaimed one night, while we were watching an episode of Vikings.
“You’re not a Viking!” the wife shouted, immediately guessing what I was about to say.
“You don’t know!”
“Yes, I do,” she said. “They’re all big, blond and Nordic looking. You’re short, dark, and stumpy.”
“There were stumpy Vikings, too!” I said. “I’d be a kick ass stumpy Viking. You’ve seen all those long boats I made in the garage!”
She refused to entertain the idea, nor to fetch me any mead.
The notes from Ancestry not containing any of my results continued on for weeks. Then, they sent another note still not containing my results but which said they were at long last actively working on them. And a week later they sent another note saying that they’d finished my results and would soon be revealing them to me, just not in that particular email.
A few days later, I was rudely awakened by my wife at the crack of 7:30. She’d been reading her iPad in bed, had checked her email, and saw that my genetic results were finally in. I blearily roused, squinting at the screen where a pie chart had popped up showing me the spectrum of my genealogy.
Turns out, I’m mostly just a white guy.
Bout as white as they come, in fact.
It seems my ancestors primarily hale from darkest Great Britain, to the tune of around 40 percent. (Your average native Great Britainer is around 60 percent, so I’m in the genetic ballpark.) Initially I was excited about this. After all, Scotland is a part of the UK. Looking at their colorized map, though, the darkest of my tiered color ranges largely excluded Scotland and Wales, which fall in the next lighter shade down (as are the Netherlands and a chunk of France). I’m 27 percent Irish, which means I can get 27 percent of a Celtic tattoo and will forever more be compelled to have a shot of Jameson with my Guinness when I’m down at the local Irish Pub. What was a surprise to me is that I’m only 13 percent Western European, with Alsace Lorraine smack in the middle of the map there. I’m also around 9 percent from the Iberian Peninsula, which centers out on Spain and Portugal. Who knew? I’ll take it.
Oh, and I was delighted to learn that I’m approximately 6 percent Scandinavian, and two percent Finnish/Western Russian, so all my stumpy-legged Viking longboats may yet come in handy. I’ll sail down the Greenbrier and pillage Alderson, or something.
In the less than 5 percent genetic estimate range, I’m apparently 1 percent Greek and/or Italian, 1 percent Eastern European, and, in point of fact, I do appear to be 1 percent African. North African, to be general, with a possible origin spread across Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and maybe the edge of Libya thrown in. That’s how genetics works, right? I’m 1 percent from all of those places.
What I am apparently NOT: I’m 0 percent from anywhere else in Africa, 0 percent European Jewish, 0 percent Pacific Islander, 0 percent middle Eastern, 0 percent anywhere in South America, and 0 percent Asian (except for 1 percent that they say originates from Caucasus, which I think is where they invented white people, so I guess that gives me bonus honky points).
All in all, I guess I’m happy with my results. It is odd to think that I’m not nearly as French and German as I had assumed I would be, but I’ll take Great Britain. Some of my favorite things in the world come from there anyway, from Doctor Who to Neil Gaiman to Douglas Adams and Monty Python. If that’s my heritage, I guess I’m in good company. I still would have liked a more specific tie to Scotland, but if that’s to be determined I’ll likely have to join up with Ancestry and do some actual research. And then I’ll be dangerously close to becoming a genealogy person, and will soon be blogging exclusively about it. Maybe I’ll save it for my 70s.