The link below is to an article that takes a look at tidying up your genealogical research.
Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from?
I think it’s a fundamental human desire to want to know this.
One way we’re seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You’ve probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you’re, say, 30% German and 70% English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating.
But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race?
‘No borders within us’
Earlier this year, a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, called “DNA Discounts” with the slogan “there are no borders within us”. For the ad campaign they gathered a group of North Americans who were willing to take a DNA test and get their results on camera. This group contained some members with, let’s just say, a somewhat negative view of Mexico.
In the ad, the airline offered rewards to these people based on their DNA results, in the form of a discounted airline ticket to Mexico. The size of the discount depended on the amount of Mexican ancestry. If their test showed 15% Mexican ancestry, that meant a 15% discount.
The footage of people getting their results on camera is pretty funny, and some of them seemed somewhat surprised, and maybe even upset about their reported ancestry. More than half of those tested appeared to have Mexican ancestry, even though they weren’t aware of it.
The slogan “there are no borders within us” has an element of political commentary related to Donald Trump’s border wall. But the ad also teaches us two important things.
It shows how DNA testing can challenge not just our ideas of race and identity, but our notion of being. Your genetic ancestry might be completely different from your cultural identity. Just ask the folks in the ad.
Beyond this, it also highlights how mainstream this kind of science has become, and how much DNA ancestry testing has entered into pop culture.
Recent, dark past
I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn’t always been a healthy interest – sometimes it’s been much darker and more sinister. And we don’t even have to look too far into the past to see that.
The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, “feeble-minded” or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology.
In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it.
In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether.
Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of “pollution” of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the “inferior” races would contaminate the “superior” race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn’t much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US.
Racism with flawed science
The events of that time are still relevant now. More than seven decades have passed and we’re seeing the rise of far-right groups and ideologies – the world of Trump, and the return of restrictive immigration policies.
We’re seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We’re once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas.
Late last year, the New York Times reported on a trend among white supremacists to drink milk. Most people of northern European ancestry have a version of a certain gene, called a lactase gene, that means they can fully digest milk as adults. This is due to a genetic mutation several thousand years ago, around the time of the first cattle herders in Europe.
The article described how people from the far right have taken this scientific result and run with it – producing bizarre YouTube videos in which people chug milk from 2-litre containers, swigging it and throwing it around in celebration of their supposed “genetic superiority” – and urging people who cannot digest milk to “go back”. Comedian Stephen Colbert even picked up on this story (in his words: “lactose is their only form of tolerance”).
The white supremacists took this bit of science and twisted it to suit their needs. But what they have ignored is research showing that a similar version of this gene evolved among cattle breeders in East Africa too.
DNA does not define culture
It’s not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture.
The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access “benefits”. I don’t want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won’t work.
Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates.
So how does the marketing of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry?
These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate.
When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16% German, it is not a fact that you are 16% German. It’s an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference.
I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations.
Twins got different results
Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works.
The raw data for each twin was more than 99% identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate.
The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates.
From one company, the first twin got 25% Eastern European, and the second got 28%. Just to be clear, this shouldn’t happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA.
Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29% Italian, but another said they were 19-20% Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time.
So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated.
Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It’s not really so clear-cut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry.
The bigger picture that’s emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.
Looking at the pie chart might give you the impression that there are discrete borders within you and boundaries between your different ancestries, but as Aeromexico so eloquently put it, “there are no borders within us”.
This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019.
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.
In 2008, Newsweek published an article on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama titled “From Barry to Barack.”
The story explained how Obama’s Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., chose Barry as a nickname for himself in 1959 in order “to fit in.” But the younger Barack – who had been called Barry since he was a child – chose to revert to his given name, Barack, in 1980 as a college student coming to terms with his identity.
Newsweek’s story reflects a typical view of name changing: Immigrants in an earlier era changed their names to assimilate, while in our contemporary era of ethnic pride, immigrants and their children are more likely to retain or reclaim ethnic names.
However, my research on name changing suggests a more complicated narrative. For the past 10 years, I’ve studied thousands of name-changing petitions deposited at the New York City Civil Court from 1887 through today.
Those petitions suggest that name changing has changed significantly over time: While it was primarily Jews in the early to mid-20th century who altered their names to avoid discrimination, today it’s a more diverse group of people changing their names for a range of reasons, from qualifying for government benefits to keeping their families unified.
Jews hope to improve their job prospects
From the 1910s through the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of people petitioning to change their names weren’t immigrants seeking to have their names Americanized.
Instead, they were native-born American Jews who faced significant institutional discrimination.
In the 1910s and 1920s, many employers wouldn’t hire Jews, and universities began establishing quotas on Jewish applicants. One way to tell if someone was Jewish was his or her name, so it made sense that Jews would want to get rid of names that “sounded” Jewish.
As Dora Sarietzky, a stenographer and typist, explained in her 1937 petition:
“My name proved to be a great handicap in securing a position. … In order to facilitate securing work, I assumed the name Doris Watson.”
Since most petitioners were native-born Americans, this wasn’t about fitting in. It was a direct response to racism.
The changing face of name changing
While 80 percent of petitioners in 1946 sought to erase their ethnic names and replace them with more generic “American-sounding” ones, only 25 percent of petitioners in 2002 did the same. Meanwhile, few name changers in the past 50 years have actually made a decision like Barack Obama’s: Only about 5 percent of all name change petitions in 2002 sought a name more ethnically identifiable.
So why, in the 21st century, are people feeling compelled to change their names?
The demographics of name change petitioners today – and the reasons that they give – suggest a complicated story of race, class and culture.
Jewish names disappeared in the petitions over the last two decades of the 20th century. At the same time, the numbers of African-American, Asian and Latino petitioners rose dramatically after 2001.
On the one hand, this reflected the changing demographics of the city. But there was also a marked shift in the class of petitioners. While only 1 percent of petitioners in 1946 lived in a neighborhood with a median income below the poverty line, by 2012, 52 percent of petitioners lived in such a neighborhood.
Navigating the bureaucracy
These new petitioners aren’t seeking to improve their educational and job prospects in large numbers, like the Jews of the 1930s and 1940s.
Instead, today’s petitioners seem to be trying to match their names with those of other family members after a divorce, adoption or abandonment. Or they’re looking to fix bureaucratic errors in their records – the misspelled or mistaken names that were long ignored, but have increasingly become major problems in the 21st century.
In the wake of Sept. 11, the nation’s obsession with security translated to an increased anxiety surrounding identity documents. This anxiety seems to have particularly burdened the poor, who now need the names on their birth certificates to match drivers’ licenses and other documents in order to get jobs or government benefits.
Roughly 21 percent of petitioners in 2002 sought to correct errors on their vital documents, while in 1942, only about 4 percent of petitions had been submitted to change a mistake on an identification document.
“When I apply for Medicare premium payment program,” one petitioner explained in 2007, “they denied it because my name doesn’t match my social security card.”
Why change your name if it won’t help?
There’s also another key difference between today and the early 20th century: limited upward mobility.
Even though multiple studies have shown that people with African-American-sounding names are more likely to face job discrimination, poor African Americans in Brooklyn and the Bronx aren’t getting rid of their African-American-sounding names.
Perhaps this is because poor or working class people in 21st-century America have fewer possibilities for upward mobility than there were for Jews in the 1940s working as clerks, salesmen and secretaries.
So even if having an ethnic-sounding name might hinder middle-class African Americans’ ability to find a better job, there’s less of an incentive for poor people of color to change their names.
Racism against Arab-Americans
There is one striking exception, and it demonstrates the powerful role discrimination continues to play in American society.
After Sept. 11, there was a surge of petitions from people with Arabic-sounding names.
Their petitions were achingly similar to those of Jews in the 1940s, though many of these newer petitioners were more open about the hatred they faced:
“Prevailing attitudes and prejudices against persons of Arabic descendancy have been adversely affected as a direct result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” one petitioner wrote. “Petitioner wishes to change his name to a less demonstratively Muslim/Arabic first name.”
By 2012, however, petitioners with Muslim or Arabic names had stopped changing their names in large numbers. That probably doesn’t have anything to do with a more tolerant society. Instead, in 2009, the New York City Police Department began conducting surveillance into New York’s Muslim and Arab communities using Civil Court name change petitions, sending the message that the act of changing your name might make you as much of a suspect as keeping it.
Although there has been substantial change in the name change petitions over the past 125 years, there’s one lasting lesson: Name changing is not a simple story. It hasn’t moved smoothly from an era in which immigrants simply wanted to fit in, to an era in which diversity is welcome.
Instead, name changing illustrates that racial hatred and suspicion have been a lasting presence in American history, and that intertwined definitions of race and class are hardening – and limiting – the opportunities of people of color.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the basics of how to start a family tree.
Technologies for amplifying, sequencing and matching DNA have created new opportunities in genomic science. In this series When DNA Talks we look at the ethical and social implications.
Getting your “DNA done” is all the rage in the United States.
The sensationalism started with celebrities such as Jessica Alba, and Snoop Dog – and has now spread to hundreds of video bloggers disclosing their ancestry to drum rolls, exclamations, cheers and tears.
These tests claim to reveal deep ancestral origins, and many public users of this technology are black Americans seeking information about their African roots.
The uptake of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has been slower in Australia, and complicated by debates both beyond and within the Indigenous community – with some leaders calling on greater scrutiny to prevent “fakes” or “wannabes” calling themselves Indigenous.
One of the authors on this paper – Shaun Lehmann – was dropped into this debate inadvertently, after receiving the result of his own DNA test a few years ago.
Professional and personal
Shaun had more professional reasons for doing the test than most: at the time he was lecturing in human genetic diversity at the Australian National University, and wanted to use his own genetic data as teaching tool.
He also had personal questions about his maternal grandmother, who had died when he was a small child. She had grown up without her mother, and said little about her background.
Because they are related through a direct maternal line, Shaun knew that it was his grandmother, and by extension mysterious great-grandmother, who gave him his mitochondrial genome.
Mitochondria are the tiny organelles that make energy in our cells. While the genome in the nucleus of our cells – our 23 pairs of chromosomes – is made up of a mix of our biological mother’s and father’s DNA, the relatively small mitochondrial genome is passed down through the egg and so reflects a single line of maternal ancestors.
What Shaun didn’t know at the time, and what the test revealed, was that his particular mitochondrial genome fell into a haplogroup (a grouping of similar mitochondrial genomes) called “S2”, which has only been observed in Aboriginal Australians.
Interpreting genetic results
Being mitochondrial DNA, Shaun knew exactly where to look in his genealogy to find out more. Sure enough, he soon found records that his grandmother’s maternal family were Aboriginal people originally from the Albany area of Western Australia. With this information in hand, Shaun was able to trace his family tree to living Noongar relatives.
Shaun’s discovery was certainly aided by the fact that he is a geneticist and could interpret his DNA test results. Most important, though, was that his Aboriginal ancestry happened to be in the direct maternal line.
Mitochondrial DNA is a reliable source of genetic information about Aboriginal ancestry, but it can’t help at all if your Aboriginal ancestors sit anywhere else in your family tree. That is, it’s only useful to track direct from mother to grandmother to great grandmother, and so on.
Different kinds of DNA tests
Most of the “ethnic breakdown” DNA results being shared publicly by bloggers come from testing companies that compare their nuclear DNA with material from various ethnic groups. The tests focus on variations in specific regions of genes – known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs.
To our knowledge, DNA testing companies do not currently have reliable reference SNP data from Indigenous Australians.
One company offering tests claiming to identify Indigenous Australians uses an approach that compares sequences in genes known as Short Tandem Repeats, or STRs. STR data from around the world is widely available in the forensic science literature because it is widely used in criminal investigations and paternity testing.
Ethical and scientific concerns have been raised about the use of STR data for commercial ancestry testing. For example, it is difficult to know how companies get their reference samples.
The case of American blogger Lisa Garrigues is illustrative. Garrigues did a test back in 2010 – it reportedly gave her second “Highest Resolution Global Population Match” as “European-Aboriginal”.
She was excited by this discovery, but also sceptical – her family has no known connections to the Southern Hemisphere. Lisa and her father subsequently did more thorough DNA testing, and it didn’t suggest Aboriginal ancestry.
In our personal correspondence with one of the genetic genealogists that assisted Lisa, Doug McDonald suggests these kind of inconsistencies are extremely common – STR markers are not designed for ancestry tests, but for matching individual people.
After the test: now what?
We need to be on the lookout for misinformation and unethical practices around genealogy testing. But even where the science is reliable, such as Shaun’s mitochondrial DNA test, the implications of identifying genetic Indigenous ancestry are far from clear.
Shaun was proud to learn about his ancestry, and has since got in contact with his relatives. He is also looking into his grandmother’s past to find out whether her separation from her mother was influenced by the policies that led to the Stolen Generations.
Existing research suggests there are many possible endings for journeys like Shaun’s. Bindi Bennett’s work highlights how young, light-skinned people who had no previous ties to the Aboriginal community can develop a strong Indigenous identity, even in the face of resistance from that community.
But Fiona Noble’s 1996 research with Queenslanders who discovered their Aboriginal ancestry late in life suggests many of this demographic see their heritage as extremely important, but not all-defining.
They are more comfortable describing themselves as being “of Aboriginal descent” than “Aborginal”.
As Regina Ganter notes, the “in-between” status of these “half-steps” is not well-recognised contemporary policy and discourse – which tends to frame Aboriginality as an either/or identity.
Although Noble and Bennett’s research participants discovered their heritage through documents or family stories, not genetics, their work offers a window onto a future where more Australians discover Aboriginal ancestry through DNA tests.
Without a doubt, the inevitable collision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia with direct-to-consumer genetic testing will continue to raise challenging questions about ancestry and identity in the 21st century.