Without a Trace

Abram Petrovich Hannibal, For Example.

In the 21st century, many of us take for granted the truths that DNA can reveal, from proving paternity to identifying risks for disease. Yet when it comes to defining race and ethnicity, genetics can only take us so far. Consider the example of Abram Petrovich Hannibal (1696? - 1781), the godson of Russian Czar Peter the Great. Hannibal studied math and engineering in Paris as a teenager before joining his godfather the Czar at war in Spain. Eventually, Hannibal became military commander of the Russian city of Reval (now Talinn, Estonia) where he and his Swedish wife had eleven children. His great-grandson, the writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), wrote about his great-grandfather in his fictionalized biography, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1828). One other fact about Abram Petrovich Hannibal: he’d been kidnapped as a child from his birthplace, the country now known as Cameroon. It was only at age eight, after Turkish slave traders sold him to the court of Peter the Great, that he learned to speak Russian. 

So, what was Abram Petrovich Hannibal’s race? What about his ethnicity? Was he Russian? West African? Something else? The answers to these questions cannot be found in a DNA test; they’re questions of culture and identity whose definitions are always changing.

DNA: The Real You?

Issue #07 - DNA

“Discover your ethnicity,” many DNA testing companies entreat us, without going much further into what exactly they mean by ethnicity. Most people think of ethnicity as a category based on shared national or community history (often linked to a geographical place of origin). More importantly, for many people, ethnicity is a meaningful part of their own self-identity. Many of these customers are drawn to DNA tests precisely to validate their sense of self and cultural belonging. So what happens when the test results reveal that you’re not German, but Basque?

It was in a humble kitchen-turned-laboratory in Tubingen Castle (first built in the 11th century) that DNA was first discovered. That’s right; it was Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher (1844-1895) who isolated and identified nuclein (later renamed deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA) in 1869. Scientists Watson, Crick, and Franklin were responsible for discovering its double-helix structure.

This is the kind of thing that happened to thousands of AncestryDNA customers earlier this year. Let’s say it’s 2012 and you’re curious about your ethnicity, so you send your saliva to AncestryDNA and are told you’re 85 percent German. Then, eight years later, you log into AncestryDNA again and discover the German percentage of your DNA was down to 35 percent... and you now have a statistically significant presence of Basque genetic markers in your DNA, as well. The explanation is simple: when AncestryDNA opened for business in 2012 their database of genetic samples (from customers like yourself) was limited to 22 possible global regions. Today in 2020 they offer 1,100 regions. In the past 8 years AncestryDNA has added millions of other DNA samples (like yours) to their database, allowing them to pinpoint your family’s origins with greater accuracy. 

News like this affects different people in different ways. About 60 percent of those presented with new ethnic results tend not to let those results change their sense of self-identity, according to Dr. Wendy Roth, Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. When this 60 percent sees some new information in their report, “they cherry-pick from the results, adopting or rejecting particular identities based on which ones they view positively or negatively and their beliefs about what others will accept,” writes Prof. Roth. 

Prof. Roth and other researchers who study racial identity warn that DNA-based ethnicity results may reinforce existing prejudices when customers “cherry-pick” their new ethnicity. “When their tests reported ancestries they did not like, test-takers ignored them. Or if they did not like their previous identity, they found others to replace it with.” According to Roth’s research, In Eduardo’s case [a pseudonym], when his revised DNA ethnicity results suddenly included not just his Mexican and Indigenous American ancestry, but also Jewish and Celtic roots, he embraced a new Jewish identity and rejected the Celtic one. 

After acknowledging he had “always looked up to the Jewish people,” he explained his reasoning. “I can pass for a Jew, there’s no question about it,” Eduardo explained. “There’s no way I could pass for a Celtic, because I’m dark, and sort of fat, short. And because of this ideal we have of the Celts, they’re tall, strong, big people….So…it’s just, ‘Stupid Mexican, dreaming he’s got Celtic blood in him.’” It wasn’t merely a question of what he could “pass” for, though. “I just feel better now because I’m one [a Jew]…I thought of them as higher than me: I have just now reached the top with them.”

Of course, nothing in Eduardo’s DNA had changed; only his self-constructed view of identity. It’s what we all do every day, of course, whether or not we turn to DNA for answers. 

Ironically, though, as genetic science becomes ever more precise it is unlocking a story of global human migration that brings us full circle to that initial question: where do I come from? Scientists refer to her as Mitochondrial Eve, the Most Recent Common Human Ancestor of all people living today. At the time of this writing, that ancestor was a woman who lived in what is now present-day Botswana about 200,000 years ago. 

Perhaps the most profound truth DNA can reveal about our ethnicities and our identities is that, beyond a certain, not-so-far-off point in the past, we, each of us, already know where we come from. From the same mother, in the same place. That’s a genetic identity result you can count on.

Weekly Discoveries

  1. Whether you are just learning about DNA or you are well-practiced at breaking down those ancestral brick walls utilizing genetic genealogy, the Facebook group, Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques offers an abundance of information and insightful discussion.

  2. The State Library of Pennsylvania has been ranked one of the best genealogical websites in the United States by Family Tree Magazine.

  3. Learn how to preserve your family photos, letters and documents for future generations.

  4. Woman reunited with biological family after 44 years, using DNA.

  5. The Finding and Using Cemetery Records Like a Pro webinar will be presented by the BYU Family History Library on November 18th.

  6. The Cherokee Nation passed an act to abolish slavery within the Cherokee Nation in 1863. The organization has announced a new plan to explore the history of the Cherokee Freedmen.

Genetic Genealogy - DNA as a Tool in Genealogical Research

Though DNA analysis alone cannot answer complex genealogical questions, it can be a powerful tool when researching your ancestry or identifying a biological family, when combined with traditional genealogical document-based research. Determining which of the numerous tests available are the correct one for your situation can be a daunting task, and we aim to shed light on the confusion surrounding DNA testing.

What is DNA?

Deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly referred to as DNA, is the genetic code that makes you you and is present in virtually every cell in your body. It is passed from generation to generation.  Human DNA includes twenty-two pairs of autosomes (numbered chromosomes), which appear the same in both males and females, and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X chromosome and the Y chromosome). Females have two copies of the X chromosome, while males have one X and one Y chromosome.

DNA is passed down randomly from one generation to the next and, with the exception of identical twins, even full siblings will only share about 50% of DNA with one another. Even though their DNA is passed down from the same gene pool (50% from each of their parents), they do not receive the exact same DNA.

Types of DNA

Currently there are three different types of DNA tests commonly used in genetic genealogy - Autosomal (atDNA), mitochondrial (mtDNA) and Y-Chromosomal (Y-DNA) - and each have their own unique place in genealogical research.

Autosomal DNA (atDNA)

Autosomal DNA is all of the non-sex specific DNA and is passed from parent to child, regardless of sex of either, and is inherited from the autosomal chromosomes equally from both parents, receiving one chromosome from each pair of the numbered chromosome from their mother and one from their father.  This is the most commonly utilized and most beneficial for the majority of genealogical research and is offered by AncestryDNA, My Heritage, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA, among others.  The autosomal DNA test offered by AncestryDNA normally provides more matches, due to the sheer volume of tests with which your DNA is compared.

Percentage of DNA shared by a generation

You inherit 50% of your DNA from each of your parents and while one might assume that each generation would accordingly be divided by half of the prior generation, that isn’t always the case, as the division is not that exact. The chart below shows probable percentages inherited from each generation, but actual inheritance can vary.

Who should test?


Autosomal DNA contains the segments of DNA that one shares with everyone to whom they are related through their maternal and paternal lines, both directly and collaterally. atDNA tests are useful in the majority of research scenarios, including identifying ancestors or biological parents of adoptees. DNA testing alone will not provide the answers to the tough genealogical questions, but will aid in the discovery process and can confirm close relationships with a high degree of accuracy.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

Mitochondrial DNA, commonly referred to as mtDNA or maternal DNA, is passed down almost unchanged from mothers to both their sons and daughters and can be useful in tracing a direct maternal line. Though males inherit mtDNA from their mothers, they do not pass it on to their children as females do. As opposed to the single y-chromosome included in each human cell, many copies of the mtDNA are included. mtDNA is separate from the DNA found in our chromosomes, as it is located outside the nucleus of the cells.

Who should test?

Mitochondrial DNA testing can prove useful in research of female ancestors. In many countries, women have not historically retained their maiden surnames, and most often were not specifically named in many records due to the legal restrictions on property ownership and guardianship of minors, among others. It is not uncommon for female ancestors to have been referred to as “wife of” or “daughter of,” with no identity unto herself. mtDNA can be helpful in tracing those maternal lines lost to time. Either a male or female descendant may be tested, however, the person being tested must have a straight matrilineal descent through females, with no males breaking the connection. mtDNA tests are offered by FamiltyTreeDNA.

Y-Chromosomal (Y-DNA)

Y-DNA is passed virtually unchanged from father to son and is used in genetic genealogy to aid in research of a male’s patrilineal ancestry. Y-DNA testing examines the genetic markers found on the Y-chromosome, revealing a male’s Y-chromosome haplogroup (see glossary of terms for further details on haplogroups).

Who should test?

The Y-DNA test can only be taken by males, as females have no y-chromosomes. The test is used to explore a male’s patrilineal ancestry.  Y-DNA tests are available through FamilyTreeDNA.

Learn more about Y-DNA in our blog post, detailing the attempts to unravel a Native American mystery - DNA Testing for Genealogical Purposes: A Tale of Two Outcomes

Past Issues Worth Reading

  • What the “Great War” Taught Us - Read Here

  • Record Remains of a Pandemic - Read Here

  • The Line Between the Living and the Dead - Read Here

  • Hiraeth: When “The Old Country” No Longer Exists - Read Here

  • “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”: Fannie Lou Hamer, Champion of Voting Rights - Read Here

Sources... Duh!

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Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 11 November 2020), “Now AncestryDNA® reveals more hidden riches in your family history.” 

The University of Chicago Press Journals (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/ : accessed 11 November 20200), “Genetic Options: The Impact of Genetic Ancestry Testing on Consumers’ Racial and Ethnic Identities.”

Wendy D. Roth, PBS, News Hour (https://www.pbs.org/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Genetic ancestry tests don’t change your identity, but you might.”

Susan Kraus Whitbourne, PhD., Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “How Ancestry's New DNA Algorithm Affects People's Identities.” 

Caitlin Harrington, Wired (https://www.wired.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Your ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does.”

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Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Ethnicity FAQ.”

Marc Scully, Turi King, Steven D. Brown, Sage Journals (https://journals.sagepub.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Remediating Viking Origins: Genetic Code as Archival Memory of the Remote Past.”

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Briana Pobiner, Rick Potts, Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “These are the Decade’s Biggest Discoveries in Human Evolution.”

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Jennifer Billock,Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Visit the German Castle Where DNA Was First Discovered.”

DNA From the Beginning (http://www.dnaftb.org/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “Friedrich Miescher (1844-1895).”

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TheScientist (https://www.the-scientist.com/ : accessed 11 November 2020), “The Discovery of DNA, circa 1869.” 

Harold M. Schmeck, Jr., "Translation of DNA enters fourth decade," Fort Worth Star-Telegram(Fort Worth, Texas), 24 April 1983, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 11 November 2020), citing print edition, sec.AA, p. 3, col. 1-2. 

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