Something for the weekend? Later in life, my father used to make bizarre claims of Russian ancestry, which I attributed to his Alzheimer’s at the time.
My father was of Jewish descent, while my mother was a sworn Scot with a strong and long family line in an embarrassingly proud clan. Enough to reach a “Waving Away The Midges” emoji on Slack.
But were our parents’ parents honest with them? Were their parents hiding something?
“You think about this too much,” Ms D said a few months ago. “If it’s really important, which it isn’t, get DNA tested,” she suggested.
Ah yes, one of those ethnic DNA tests you can get from those online family tree sites! I remember now: my brother-in-law bought one last year for fun. And that did make him laugh: it told him he was 1% Central American.
We have come a long way since the Human Genome Project. When the Web was still young, we gladly allowed our idle PCs to join in the distributed computing effort to decode and map human DNA, and we felt excited about the new age of science and brotherhood that it would result. We’re living in this New Age right now, except it’s bitcoin miners hijacking our PCs to do their distributed dirty work while we get DNA tested just for laughs.
Well, I’ve been known to like to laugh once in a while too, so Ms D and I went online and ordered a pair of DNA test kits from Germany. (Apparently the sale of DNA tests for personal amusement is not yet allowed in France, which is surprising since the French authorities have absolutely no problem with citizens using the public postal service to send their own droppings.)
A week later we received our kits, swabbed our cheeks and sent the samples back. This was followed by two tedious months of pretending we weren’t at all interested while we waited for news from the lab.
Aaaand… the results are there.
I don’t expect any surprises. I am a fairly dull English white man. Nothing to see here. Whatever ethnic culture I inherited is probably extremely uncool; hopefully not the kind that needs to be knocked into a river by an angry mob.
Except it turns out I’m not English after all. My lab DNA test classified me as 78% Scottish, Irish or Welsh. I am predominantly Celtic.
To see? No English. I am Scottish. It’s official
The black line shows where the British Isles are for those who feel geographically challenged. The darker red spot indicates the source of most of my DNA. Thanks Mom.
It changes everything. As an Englishman, my historical legacy would have included a scathing evocation of all that is evil in the world. As a Celt, I hear the mental echo of a romantic hymn of mystical culture, repression and resistance.
What about the remaining 22%? Ah, now that’s where I got my laughs. Let’s start with the Baltic States. My DNA estimates that 8% of me has its roots there. Great for those pub conversations where I can announce, “Do you want to see a screenshot of my Baltics?”
Just look at the state of my Baltics
I fear that in the current political climate, this will push me into uncool territory. I’m practically Russian, according to this map. After fishing my cultural statue from the river, the angry mob seems ready to put it back and ban me from watching this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Except…
Wow, that’s quite a large area: all of Eastern Europe
…another 7% of me was assigned to a wider stretch from the Czech Republic to Ukraine. With the Baltic regions above, I’m 15% in favor of Eastern Europe. What’s going on? I have absolutely no Slavic family background. Unless…
There you go: from pogrom to pogrom
Ah. This card is labeled “Ashkenazi Jew”, of which I am 5%. It’s basically the two previous cards combined. I guess they must have moved around a bit. Thank you dad. I think I know what 5% they’re referring to, even though they were surgically separated from me when I was still a baby.
The DNA report indicates that I may have a trace element of Anglo-German-Dutch ethnicity, but the trace is too slight to be considered reliable. Not only am I more Celtic than English, but I am also actually more Jewish than English.
But wait, what’s that at the end of the report?
1% is from Finland, but maybe not from me
Apparently, I’m 1% Finnish. “Hey, look at that! I call Mrs. D. “Now I know why I voted for Lordi in 2006!”
“Me too,” comes the response as she turns her laptop screen to me. According to the map, she’s 1% Finnish, just like me – although the other 99% is decidedly Mediterranean.
Hmm…kinda like how his brother turned out to be exactly 1% Central American, come to think of it. Thus, the seeds of doubt are sown alongside those of my Scottish-Ashkenazi relatives. Of course, a €60 DNA test comes with an acceptable margin of error that my HGP self-supporter could only have dreamed of in the 1990s. But 1% Finnish granted to both of us despite our ethnic roots unmistakably different is a coincidence – and curiously specific.
Some of you may still remember the very rapid impact that DNA mapping had on criminal cases from the mid-2000s. Cold cases suddenly became hot; perpetrators who thought they would never be discovered were duly tracked down; DNA has become an indisputable magic fingerprint for law enforcement and the justice system.
But do you remember the case of the so-called “ghost of Heilbronn”? With the help of its DNA testing labs, German police were able to determine that a woman’s DNA had been identified at 40 crime scenes, implicating her in at least six murders over a 16-year period. They ruthlessly hunted her down, eventually nabbing the suspect, previously unknown to the police – a lowly factory worker in Bavaria.
The factory made cotton swabs; in fact, the very swabs the police used to take DNA samples.
You guessed the rest: the factory made swabs for general medical use rather than for analytical purposes. The swabs were sufficiently sterile but not made in an airtight, DNA-clean environment. Police had read a factory worker’s DNA that was already on swabs used at six murder scenes – likely unrelated.
Now I can’t help wondering if there’s an experienced Finnish guy in charge of opening the incoming position at the German DNA labs where our ethnicity tests were processed. It’s not his fault, he’s the new kid after all. As far as I know, he had to step in at the last minute to replace the Central American exchange student they were hiring.
It’s a shame, because a trace of Finnish would have bolstered my thoroughbred Eurovision credentials by an extra percent. Don’t worry, though: every Eurovision entry this year is desperately trying to ring Eastern Europe in order to win more votes.
Ethnically speaking – and I finally have the data to prove it – I can’t lose.
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance tech enthusiast, juggling tech journalism, training, and digital publishing. He apologizes for making repeated references to the Eurovision Song Contest, partly to American readers who don’t know what it is, but even more so to European and Australian readers who do. For the latter, know that you only have two months left to book your vacation abroad to escape the nonsense of Eurovision. It suggests Central America. More to Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.