Updated: May 21
Season 1 - Foundations
Episode 14 - Know Your Resources: Genetics, Genealogy, & the Language of DNA Pt2
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"There is no genetic difference that truly makes any difference at all
when it comes to humanity."
When tracing your ancestry it's important to know your resources. If you are going to have your genetic data analyzed for genealogical purposes, you should consider the history of medical testing, and research the specific tests available--including how they analyze your sample, how they will deliver your results, and what they may do with your information in the future.
In this episode, Dr. Jeff tells us more about the mechanics of genetic testing and what makes black genes (those tracing back to Africa) unique. Shannon Christmas helps us understand what to look for when taking genetics tests for genealogical purposes, and what pitfalls to avoid (including specific companies that overpromise and underdeliver). Listen to the episode for more information!
Below, find some tips that may assist you in your process:
Things to consider when deciding whether or not to take a genetic test:
Determine Your Why
In the first episode of American Origin Stories, we discussed about the concept of Knowing Your Why. It simply means, before you act, contemplate your reasoning for embarking on the journey of tracing your ancestry. When you identify your objectives, you're better able to determine what you will and won't do, and what can resources you need in order to find answers.
The same is true of the decision to take an genetic ancestry test. If you are thoughtful about what you want from the test results, you'll be in a better position to decide whether 1) you should take a test and 2) what test is best for your purposes.
Research Your Options
This is critical! Genetic tests are not created equal - both in the sense that they vary in quality and also in kind. First, they can vary in how they take your information. In other words, some tests require blood samples, saliva, or cotton swabs. Although many of the most well-known companies use saliva sampling, you want to be sure you are clear on this from the outset.
Second, consider how they will test your data and what they purport to tell you. Shannon discusses this in depth, but generally, you want to know the science behind the test, even if at a basic level. He warned against companies that are secretive about how the process your genetic data. So BEWARE & be cautious.
Third, research how they will provide your results and what you can do with it. Some companies provide your results digitally. And, they allow you to opt-in to connecting with relatives (on the show, Dr. Jeff discusses how analysts determine kinship). Other tests provide only paper results, with no details about who living in the world (or recently passed) is a relative. If all you want to know is where you come from geographically, then you may be okay with this lack of information. However, if you want to build your family tree through genetic genealogy, you'll want more comprehensive results. Again, that is why it's important to know your why!
Read the T's & C's
Finally - in the words of Dr. Jeff - "read the T's and C's fam!" Read the terms and conditions provided by the company. They will outline exactly what they can legally do with your data. If you have concerns about future use of your data, read the relevant terms and conditions. If you want to know whether other people will be able to find you, read the relevant terms and conditions. If you want to know whether law enforcement will have access to your family line, read the relevant terms and conditions.
We live in a tech-heavy world where we are constantly "forced" into agreeing to terms that we never review. But both experts on today's episode stress that you should treat this differently. Review the information, because it could have long-lasting consequences for you and others.
So, you decided to take a test and you have the results. Now what?
What to do with the information you receive - genetic genealogy:
Genetic genealogy is the use of genetic information to trace ancestry. Shannon Christmas is a genetic genealogist, so his professional focus is on helping others use their genetic information to build out family connections. There are three main types of DNA- mitochondrial (maternal), y chromosomal (paternal), and autosomal (all ancestors).
Essentially, genetics are used in genealogy to find answers that are otherwise not available (or not confirmed). For instance, on the second episode of AOS, we spoke with historian, Dr. Kathryn Olivarius, about the difficulty of tracing ancestry into slavery given the shortage of reliable documentation. One explanation for this difficulty is the fact that white enslavers did not always admit to (or know) their enslaved black children. So, someone tracing their ancestors may suspect that a certain plantation owner is a great+ grandfather, but have no sources to support it. This was true of the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Through DNA testing, it was confirmed what many had suspected - Jefferson had descendants with African ancestry even though he never confirmed in it writing.
Not everyone can link their ancestry to Jefferson, but on average, Black Americans will find an ancestor of European lineage. And, given the nature of slavery and subsequent oppression, Shannon explains that identifying that European relative (even if painful) can help make connections to more relatives than if simply relying on the sparse data of enslaved or oppressed relatives.
Overall, Shannon recommends that people use all sources available to them when tracing ancestry because you never know where you might find a missing word in your ancestral sentence. For him, there is a unique benefit in the language of DNA that we should use to piece together the past. However, they may also mean getting in on the ground floor, and digging through the archives!
Personal Identity & DNA: A Reminder
Despite the benefits of building your family tree through genetics, be wary of assigning too much of your self-identity to the results. Because of the sordid history of this nation, many people may discover secrets of mixed ancestry, but genetic data is just one aspect of who you are. It does not have to define or limit you. When it comes to DNA testing, "There is no genetic difference that truly makes any difference at all when it comes to humanity."
Shannon Christmas, is an experienced genealogist specializing in genetic, colonial American, and African-American genealogy in Virginia and the Carolinas. He serves as a 23andMe Ancestry Ambassador, administrator of The Captain Thomas Graves of Jamestown Autosomal DNA Project, and as a co-administrator of The Hemings-Jefferson-Wayles-Eppes Autosomal DNA Project. Shannon has a special interest in harnessing the power of autosomal DNA to verify and extend pedigrees, assess the veracity of oral history, and reconstruct ancestral genomes.Routinely invited to lecture at international genealogy conferences, Shannon was one of a select few genetic genealogists invited to participate in the American Society of Human Genetics’ Roundtable on Genetic Ancestry Inference. Shannon was tapped to investigate the genetic lineage of Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder of Virginia and presented his findings at The 2015 Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society’s National Conference in Richmond, Virginia.
A trained urban planning and real estate consultant, Shannon has a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Harvard University and a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Named an “essential blog for genetic genealogy education” by the Board of Certification for Genealogists. His blog, Through The Trees, is created for genealogy enthusiasts seeking to locate and leverage new tools and emerging technologies to break through genealogical brick walls.
Dr. Janina M. Jeff
Dr. Janina M. Jeff is a STEAM-activist, educator, motivational speaker, and podcaster. She is also the first African American to graduate with a PhD in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt University.
Dr. Jeff has a unique perspective to offer in the world of Human Genetics. While revering the power of the genome and its infinite possibilities, Dr. Jeff has never participated in consumer genetic testing. As an African-American woman, Dr. Jeff is conscious of the lack of ethical research and compassion for African descendant communities. Dr. Jeff’s mission is to inspire a MINDSHIFT to AFRO-futurism through the power of the genome and its ability to predict and mitigate detrimental health outcomes.
All music comes from Storyblocks. Today’s episode featured the following songs: