Discover missing pages in your family’s story

This 5,000-year-old skull of a female farmer recovered in 1855 from a Neolithic tomb near Belfast provided DNA that helps reveal the deep ancestry of the Irish people.

Resumption last week on PBS of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. will inspire more Americans to become involved in personal genetics, a field offering unprecedented insights about who our ancestors were and how we became who we are.

In our nation of immigrants who often relocate great distances from one generation to the next, it’s easy for the threads of memory to break, severing us from even the relatively recent past.

And that’s just fine with many. They either are habitually incurious, too busy just getting by, or certain their families did nothing of interest.

Many, however, positively hunger for such knowledge. People ignorant of their family’s past are like pages torn from a long and complicated book. They might be interesting, but they have no context, narrative or plot. You can’t understand who the characters are or why they behave as they do. Being part of long, messy stories is what makes us human. Without your family’s tale, you’d just as well be a rabbit hiding in its hole.

Fleshing out these stories takes old-fashioned genealogy — genetics technology isn’t a magical shortcut. Only with exceptional luck will a genetics test prove a link to some long-lost relation who has already accurately reconstructed part of your family narrative.

What genetics testing can reliably do:

• Find cousins you didn’t know about.

• Sometimes overcome genealogical “brick walls” — gaps in the paper trail between a known ancestor and someone further back.

• Tell whether you, a parent or more distant ancestor was adopted, or born as the result of an out-of-wedlock affair.

• Determine an approximation of your racial composition.

• Offer solid clues about what nations or regions some of your ancestors lived in.

• Prove or disprove relationship with someone with the same last name.

• Find out what percentage Neanderthal you are.

These uses will be incredibly meaningful to some and completely boring to others. The fact is, though, that even someone who is 100 percent certain they know all there is to know about their family is likely to be in for surprises. If you don’t want your assumptions challenged, it’s best to not ask questions or take tests.

Genetics sounds scary to many. They fear it is too technical to understand, or too expensive, or that their personal data may be hijacked or backfire in some way. If you’re genuinely interested in answers to compelling questions, don’t let these concerns get in your way. Testing companies and hoards of enthusiasts stand ready to help interpret results, tests are becoming steadily more affordable and thorough, and the types of DNA tested for ancestry are rarely susceptible to misuse.

I’ve been deeply involved in genetics for a dozen years and have answered questions for many friends and family members. For what it’s worth, here are brief reviews and recommendations about testing and DNA-interpretation firms I’ve used. All are 100 percent reliable in terms of doing accurate tests, but they differ greatly in value and the services they offer. Testing procedures are painless and easy. They are listed in order of usefulness, in my subjective opinion.

• Family Tree DNA (www.familytreedna.com): Tests cost from $99 to $566; the website offers good explanations about the differences between them. There are occasional sales, for example on DNA Day, April 25 — some other companies do the same. FTDNA is one of the best and largest personal genetics firms. Perhaps its strongest suit is the depth of its database, with hundreds of thousands of testees being able to compare results and learn from one another.

• 23andme (23andme.com): Originally affiliated with Google but now freestanding, Its only test, which costs $199, is a great value, a sort of “one-stop shop” for paternal, maternal, autosomal (mixed) genetic lines, and some health-related information.

• BritainsDNA (www.britainsdna.com) formerly Ethnoancestry: Tests cost about $290 for men and $250 for women. One of the first outfits I used, this company has undergone corporate transitions since then, but still is a credible choice, particularly for we with mainly British ancestry.

• AncestryDNA (ancestry.com): Basic test $99. The big dog in online genealogy, Ancestry also offers DNA tests. A large testee database and good corporate support, but I’ve found their suggested genetic matches to be useless.

• YFull (www.yfull.com): $49 fee. A Russia-based interpretation service, they take DNA raw data obtained by clients from other companies and crunch it for you. Probably not terribly helpful for beginners, but worth bearing in mind if you become as obsessed with the topic, as many do.

• In addition, though I haven’t used them for this purpose, National Geographic has been a major player in DNA testing via its Genographic Project, now somewhat tied with Family Tree DNA. Its $149 test provides interesting results about ethnicity, but is less useful for other purposes.

• Oxford Ancestors (www.oxfordancestors.com): About $290. A prestigious name but low value for the money.

I could write a whole additional column about recent scientific findings about the genetic composition of the British Isles and other places. For one, much to their mutual chagrin, a study finds that France was the biggest source of DNA for most in England’s prosperous southeast (see www.tinyurl.com/DailyMailDNA). For another, there isn’t a single, unified type of “Celtic” ancestry. For example, typically Irish DNA originated from prehistoric migrations from the Middle East and Eastern Europe (see www.tinyurl.com/GuardianIrishDNA).

This is the golden age of genetic and genealogical learning. It will make you a wiser, more philosophical person. It’s as close as we’re likely to get to having a time machine. So get after it.

—M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor and publisher of the Chinook Observer and Coast River Business Journal.

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