When my mtDNA collection kit arrived in the mail, I opened it eagerly; inside I found a stick for scraping cells from the insides of my cheeks. After doing so, I placed the end of the stick into one of the sanitized vials included with the kit and sealed the vial with a lid. I repeated the process after two hours and again later in the day. Then I sent the three samples off and waited.
Several weeks later, from my work cubicle in New York City, I logged on to the Genographic Project’s Web site using my kit ID number and printed out my results. I received a goofy certificate with my name on it telling me that I belong to haplogroup D. All the members of my haplogroup share a particular set of mutations in mtDNA. The rest of the package included a map that traced the migration of my haplogroup over tens of thousands of years.
I am descended, the document explained, from a “Mitochondrial Eve” who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. Eve’s descendants split into haplogroups L1 and L0, both of which originated in East Africa. Further mutations created another haplogroup that became widespread among women in West Africa. About 60,000 years ago my ancestors from that area left Africa for good. The next major mutation gave rise to haplogroup M; many descendants of this group today live in Pakistan and northwest India. Finally, some 50,000 years ago, my haplogroup, D, appeared in the Central Asian plains and began moving throughout East Asia. And now here I am.
I found this information rather disappointing. My ancestry report was mostly a generic account of ancient human populations. But the Genographic Project’s main goal is not to answer questions about personal identity; its purpose is to collect as much genetic information as possible from people around the world. The resulting database will become a master file of DNA samples that can answer a wide range of questions about modern humans’ ancestral backgrounds, before influences like international travel scramble this information for good. The more participants like me are willing to share their genetic information, the more the Genographic Project will know about smaller, more local migrations. So I filled out a form telling the project that my father’s ancestors were English and my mother’s were Chinese.
I wanted to know whether the Genographic Project’s test could tell me more about myself. I called population geneticist Spencer Wells, the project director, who spends much of his time in the field collecting DNA. “Your mother seems to have more of a northern version of haplogroup D,” he told me—more northern, that is, than the patterns typically seen in Thailand and Southeast Asia. My mtDNA just confirmed what I already knew: My grandmother had come from China, not Thailand.
Family Tree DNA: Examining My Father’s Y Chromosome
Next I explored the other side of my ancestry. Family Tree DNA’s Y chromosome test ($119, familytreedna.com) looks for SNPs and small stretches of repeating nucleotides on the Y chromosome that fathers pass on to their sons. Random mutations (generally harmless) that occasionally arise in these sequences are passed along too. The genetic signatures of the mutations are a lot like inherited surnames. Since only men have a Y chromosome, I had to ask my father to use the Family Tree DNA kit that would arrive in the mail. I assured him that it wasn’t a paternity test.
The company sent my dad a kit that looks at 25 markers to place him in one of the 20 haplogroups. My dad told me he had almost gagged while scraping the inside of his cheek three times for cell samples. But at least he did not break the stick. He sent the samples to a company lab in Houston for analysis.
A week later we were able to view the results online. “Out of 165,000 men in the database and out of the 50 or so Dickinsons, we eliminated all but three,” Bennett Greenspan, the founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA, told me. “If you’re a genealogist, you compare your dad’s genealogy with the men who match him to find out who your common ancestor is.” The three matches turned out to be cousins of my father’s, but according to Greenspan, “DNA can’t tell you whether you are a first, third, or fifth cousin because these markers change randomly.”
I was in a cab on my way home from a restaurant when my dad called with news. “Guess what?” he said eagerly. “I got more of my DNA results. I’m mostly from eastern England where the Puritans are from. I belong to haplogroup I2a.” This didn’t surprise me; I2a is a branch of haplogroup I, to which 20 percent of all Europeans belong. Even my father’s specific branch, haplogroup I2, is pretty common.
Suddenly I felt like a child again—under the covers with my pajamas on, listening to a bedtime story—as my father told me about our migration history. “You see, Boonsri, the I2 people are the mammoth-eaters portrayed in The Clan of the Cave Bear,” he told me. People who belong to the I2a subgroup are probably from the Balkans and Sardinia; judging from the accumulation of mutations, this group split from haplogroup I about 25,000 years ago. My father must have descended from a pocket of people in Eastern Europe that migrated to England, perhaps along with the Roman army. The Puritan Dickinsons then moved to New England.
My dad said the report confirmed everything he had already known about our genealogy, particularly the English part. After his father passed away, he discovered his family is related to Emily Dickinson. The connection is not direct, since she did not have any children, but her grandfather’s brother was an ancestor of mine.