Even as ideas about race have changed, new tools have evolved for studying the subject. Some geneticists now argue, in fact, that the whole concept of race isn’t really biologically relevant, that the DNA differences underlying our racial divisions are, well, microscopic.
A branch of Frudakis’ company called AncestryByDNA aims to help genealogists explore the racial mix of their family trees with a simple DNA test.
A different kind of DNA test
AncestryByDNA simply places your DNA along this racial spectrum, which means the test can’t connect you with distant DNA cousins, as some genetic-genealogy offerings promise. But if you’ve always wondered if you have some African roots, for example, AncestryByDNA offers an easy way to put your theories and family stories to the test.
How it works
The test itself couldn’t be simpler. When you order, you get two sterile Gene Guard swabs, which look sort of like small dental instruments. You scrape the inside of each cheek with a serrated swab at least 10 times, using an up-and-down motion and moderate pressure. Then, let the swabs briefly air-dry and pop them in the supplied return envelope.
A few weeks later, you’ll receive a CD-ROM that includes a certificate and results table showing your ancestral proportions, a triangular graph charting your results and a map of ancient human-migration patterns.
For example, I tried AncestryByDNA on behalf of a coworker who’d always suspected that he had Native American ancestry. The circumstances of one grandparent’s birth were a bit cloudy, and the grandparent had grown up in an area with many Native Americans in fact, enduring that “half-breed” taunt as a youth. This grandparent even looked more like a Native American than like the Scandinavians who mostly populated the region.
Our coworker got the AncestryByDNA kit and swabbed the inside of both cheeks. The process was no more painful, he reported, than if you scraped with your toothbrush. Then, he tucked the two little swabs in an envelope, sent it off and waited for the results.
Given how sure he was that the evidence pointed to a Native American branch in the family tree, the results were a bit of a surprise: The test found no Native American DNA component whatsoever. So much for those long-held suspicions! Surprisingly, too, the results showed 94 percent Indo-European but also 6 percent East Asian ancestry. (The company says its error rate is 3 percent, too low to explain this figure.)
But, if anything, that 6 percent confirms his pure Scandinavian origins. According to AncestryByDNA’s Web site, “DNAPrint has found that many individuals reporting pure Scandinavian ancestry register with detectible East Asian admixture as well. This result may obtain through contribution of the Lapps, indigenous Scandinavians who share physical features, culture and common history with Northern Asian populations.”
Even though the answers weren’t what he’d expected, our coworker was glad to have tried the test.