My autosomal DNA test results are in.
Some scraping of my inner cheek promised to give insight on my ethnic background and a chance to find folks somehow related to me.
I wasn’t expecting any surprises or revelations about my ethnic makeup.
The makings of mutt
I’ve long known my ethnic ancestry is roughly divided in quarters: Irish, Jewish, German and British. Genealogy has helped me figure just how for the latter two quarters.
The 50 percent I inherited from my grandfathers is easy enough to determine.
My maternal grandfather was an immigrant Jew, born in what was then Russia’s Pale Settlement (now Belarus).
My paternal grandfather was 100 percent Irish-American, his father’s parents having immigrated from County Kerry, Ireland and his mother’s parents immigrants from Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone.
I also have about a quarter each German and British ancestry from my grandmothers. But because they both have lines that date back to Colonial America as well recent immigrant ancestors, plus a few mysteries thrown in the mix, figuring out the distribution entailed much more research.
So, I was quite surprised to see my admixture results from FamilyTreeDNA reporting my ethnic makeup as follows: 67 percent European (45 percent British Isles and 22 percent Scandinavian), 31 percent Ashkenazi Diaspora and 3 percent Middle Eastern.
I was puzzled the most by the extra Jewish ancestry… I mean, shouldn’t I have only inherited a quarter of my DNA from my maternal Grandpa? Was there an extra Jew (or line of Jews) way back in the family tree?
And where the heck were my German ancestors, whose lines I have had the most success in tracing back along the paper trail?
A better understanding
For nearly weeks now I’ve tried to learn more about this testing I had submitted to on a whim. And I’ve discovered some things I wish I had a better understanding of before I took the plunge into this new frontier of genealogical inquiry. It’s been an expensive lesson in buyer beware.
A few of the things I’ve learned:
- Admixure results are only speculative. This I was actually pretty well aware of, but still found somewhat surprising in just how so.
- While we absolutely inherit 50 percent of our DNA from each parent and should receive roughly 25 percent from each grandparent, things don’t always divide so evenly with each subsequent generation beyond our parents. Furthermore, one’s chromosomes don’t always inherit so equally, even in the most immediate (parent-child) relationship.
- Endogamy will completely mess with your match results. Of this, too, I was already vaguely aware, but not at all prepared for just how skewed matches become with even just a fraction of ancestry from an endogamous population.
So even though I inherited none of my Grandpa’s swarthy looks (alas!), I apparently received quite a bit of his DNA when recombination occurred. To clarify, it seems I received chunks of unrecombined chromosomes (more on that below).
And as for my German ancestors, I was prepared to see something like 20-odd percent “Continental European” or similar broadly defined Western European group, but in the end those Scandinavian results and perhaps even some in the British Isles category could easily represent those lines thanks to migration.
Now, going into this adventure I fully anticipated having to do a bit of work in order to figure out how I relate to any matches. I was also aware that trying to bust brick walls five generations back would be a difficult task, perhaps even impossible for those mystery ancestors much further back on my family tree.
But here’s the thing… though I have quite a number of matches within a second to fourth cousin (not close, but less-distant) range, none of them appear to be truly in that range thanks to endogamy. And that leaves me only with matches of fifth to (much more common) distant cousin range – almost all of whom appear to relate through our shared Jewish ancestry.
One of the hopes I had for atDNA testing was to match with less-distant (second to third) cousins who are related to me through my Jewish and Irish lines, as they are the branches of my family tree for which I have the least information. Some of the reason for that is just the difficult nature of Jewish and Irish genealogical research, due to lack of records.
But some of it is because both of my grandfathers left the tight-knit ethnic and religious fold of their families in order to both marry who they loved and broaden their horizons. That meant relatives, traditions and (most) stories were lost within one generation.
I’ve successfully gone back to my great-great grandparents on those sides of my pedigree, so I figured I had a decent shot at making the right ancestral connections between matching cousins. I really, really hoped to match with a second (or third) cousin who was better connected, whose immediate family had remained in the fold.
There are some intriguing longer segment matches between me and quite a number of folks who also have Ashkenazi ancestry, but its mostly on only one or two chromosomes which indicates the relationship is much further back than FTDNA predicts and what can be proven by the few (oh, so few) who have uploaded their GEDCOM family tree.
Because of FTDNA founder Bennett Greenspan’s interest in creating a census of the Jewish people and call to action through the Avotaynu project, it’s little wonder why the vast majority of my less-distant cousin FTDNA matches are Jews.
I don’t see this as necessarily a problem… I think it’s great that Greenspan is getting the word out about the importance of testing the eldest generation while they are still here. And hopefully, the more folks get on board then the greater chance I have to someday make a connection. This applies to every genealogical DNA testing company.
Challenges of a new frontier
I imagine it’s kind of like early home pregnancy tests. My Mom enjoys telling me how she tested twice when newly pregnant and twice got a negative result. Then one day she found herself at the GYN’s office for what she thought was a simple yeast infection and surprise, surprise… she was already a few months along with me. So maybe as the technology and public interest progress, the results will improve?
Still, a part of me wonders if I would’ve had more matches through my non-Jewish family lines had I gone with Ancestry or even 23andMe.
To remedy that, I uploaded my raw results to Gedmatch. I honestly don’t know why more folks don’t do so – it’s free. Yet, I constantly see recommendations to test with all three top genealogical DNA testing companies rather than the strong advise to choosw just one, and then share and connect through Gedmatch.
And unlike Ancestry (whose TOS are frightening), there is no subscription required. But the drawback is FTDNA has the smallest database of the three top genealogical DNA testing companies.
In hindsight, I wish I had understood a little more about how extremely unlikely it would be to have matches that could be substantiated by an existing paper (or digital) trail.
So, some part of me feels seriously let down, perhaps even a bit duped, by the growing geneatology trend.
One has to remember that, while there may be a sincere passion for genealogy (which I do not doubt), Greenspan, and even Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are in the genetic testing biz… so, they’re making money off us with every cheek swab (or vial o’ spit). This part of me feels so damned disappointed that I just want to shake it all off as expensive lesson learned and only stick with the traditional genealogy tools.
But another part is doggedly determined to get somewhere, make some good use of this potential tool, holding out hope that somehow, someday closer matches that can actually be proven will be made – even though that diminishes as older generations die off. I mean, had autosomal testing been around when my grandparents were still alive how different might the results and this post have been?
It’s weird to think that my Mom, uncle and aunt are the oldest living generation for my family now – even crazier to realize that my younger brother is now the oldest male in our paternal line.
In my fantasies, I would love to be able to somehow convince several distant cousins to test (the remaining few of my grandparent’s generation, some whom I only know of via research and have never contacted), as if that’s the key to success. But honestly, I am not sure that the increased chances for matches with others that could lead to significant break-throughs would justify the cost.
So was the experience worth it?
If it had been $50 or less, I’d say perhaps it was worth the wager on poor odds for a momentary thrill. But at the $89 price (or higher, depending on testing company), my answer today is no.
I hope others have had more fruitful outcomes with their own testing. And, yes, I still do hope that one day that I may change my mind and consider this a wise expenditure.