Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exploring Family History Through DNA

by Pa Rock

I have been doing genealogical research and collecting historical information on my family for over thirty years.  The effort began in the pre-Internet days when it was much more difficult and time-consuming.  Creating a family record involved interviewing the family old-timers, visiting libraries, county courthouses, funeral homes, and cemeteries.  It was also necessary to send requests for records (like birth, marriage, and death certificates) - along with ever-increasing fees - to various state archives.  Today, of course, much family history can be obtained by just clicking through the Internet.   Most of my first-hand research is posted on the web where it can be easily accessed by others, and thousands of others have their work posted there as well.

However the World Wide Web will only take you so far.  I can trace a couple of lines back four hundred years, but the years beyond that are quickly lost in the mists of time.  Even the European royals whose family history is often well documented for dozens of generations, generally can’t get much further back that fifteen hundred years or so.  The Japanese royals can go back beyond that, but only by about another thousand years.  That still leaves a million years or more in which we basically have no idea who our ancestors were or what they were doing.

Several years ago my youngest son sent me information on a professional organization that was collecting DNA for genealogical/historical purposes.  Actually, as I was soon to discover, there were several groups out with similar programs.  I learned that some were less reputable than others, and some even sold your personal DNA information to the evil insurance companies so that they could learn a person’s likelihood of developing certain ailments.

The completion of the mapping of the human genome and the rapid expansion of technology has led to the ability to collect and classify large amounts of DNA data from around the world, and from that, the ability to map a person’s ancestral migrations over thousands of years.

The National Geographic Society, a completely reputable and very well respected organization, has been building a DNA database for several years.   They have recently started the second phase of their Genographic Project and are soliciting individuals to have their DNA tested and entered into their database (for a handsome fee of $200).   The Society states that they use an exclusive, custom-built genotyping chip to test nearly 150,000 DNA markers that are “specifically selected to provide unprecedented ancestry-related information.”

The Society declares that by participating, individuals will:     
  •  Discover migration paths your ancient ancestors followed hundreds – even thousands – of years ago, with an unprecedented view of your ancestral journey.
  • Learn what percentage of your genome is affiliated with specific regions of the world.
  •  Find if you have Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestry.
  • Have the opportunity to share your story and connect with other Genographic Project participants, helping us fill in the gaps in the human story.

For the two hundred dollars, participants are provided with a “kit” and materials for a cheek swab which is then mailed off to the National Geographic Society’s labs.  After the participants get their results, they can then decide if they want to become part of the Society’s collection of data that is used to study where humans originated and how they came to populate the earth.   The Society is quick to state that it does not share any personal information with outside agencies.

I have sent for my kit and am anxious to explore my early family history.   If I am satisfied with the process and the quality of the experience, I will help to provide the same experience and information for my grandchildren.  It will all be an important part of their heritage - and should bring "show and tell" at school to a whole new level!

(Note:  I am in no way associated with the National Geographic Society - and I am paying full price for my kit.)

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