Jewish Genealogy: The Genographic Project

I used to teach a class on DNA and genealogy, and maybe I will again at some point. It came from my own interest in the subject. I first had my own DNA tested four years ago, which wound up connecting me with my biological family.

I initially tested myself through a company called 23andme because they also offered testing for genetic illnesses. As an adopted child, I did not know if I had increased likelihood for heart disease, or stroke, or Alzheimer's, or the like. It was rather terrifying to request the results, but I was then in my 40s and figured if long-term planning would be needed, it would be better to know sooner than later.

The test also offered an ethnicity estimate, which I have reproduced below:

As you can see, 23andme has me as almost exclusively European, and largely English and Irish (they do not distinguish). All this was consistent with what I knew from my biological family, which is Irish-American. There are a few surprises in there: Some French and German, some West African, and even a hint of Native American.

23andme is good about letting you know that these results are highly speculative. In fact, you can change the confidence level of the results, and when I switch it from speculative to conservative, all the surprises go away, and I am left with British and Irish and a collecting of generalized European DNA.

I went on to take a few more tests. The next, from, gave me the following result:

Again with great confidence in my Irish heritage, which is distinguished from the remainder of Great Britain and comes in at 66 percent, and then, with much less confidence, some Scandinavian, Iberian, and even Jewish ethnicity. In another section, they even guess as to the area in Ireland my people come from: Northern Connacht. My people mostly come from County Clare, which is in Northern Connacht, so well done,

Of course, they also had access to my family tree, which I created on their site, which explicitly lists my ancestors as coming from Clare, so maybe this isn't that surprising an analysis.

If you have done a previous DNA tests, you can upload your results to Family Tree DNA, so I did that, and they produced their own ethnicity results, which I will not comment on, as they look like this:

I am something of a completist, so recently I submitted a DNA sample (spit; it's always spit) to the  Geneographic Project. This is through National Geographic, and I was interested in seeing their ethnicity estimate.

They do it a little differently; the others rely largely on self-reported ethnicity, and so their results are not quite junk science, but, let's say, still in their infancy. People often don't really know their own ethnicity, or only know a part of it, or have been lied to about it. Americans by and large all seem to think there is a Cherokee princess in their background, as though the Cherokee tribe did nothing but produce princesses who all then married white men. So where these ethnicity estimates say "low confident," I am going to say "probably wrong."

But the Genographic Project bases its results on relatively stable populations, and compares your results against the typical results from that region. They don't offer any low-confidence answers. Instead, my results looked like this:

They then compare this against reference populations, to see what countries tend to have a similar result. Mine was most like the results found on the British Islands, although I lack Southwestern European, Northeastern European, and the small amount of Jewish Diaspora DNA found in your typical British person.

My Asia Minor and West Mediterranean DNA is atypical for the British. And I have twice as much Eastern European DNA as your average resident of the British Isles and Ireland.

The Eastern European influence is new -- none of the other tests produced it. And, as someone who spends so much time working on a project based in my adoptive Eastern European heritage, I am delighted that National Geographic has decided I have actual Eastern European DNA. Sixteen percent may not seem like that much, but its a larger amount that a previous test gave me for English DNA (5 percent), and I am not going to stop drinking Old Speckled Hen anytime soon.

There more, too. The Genographic Project, in particular, was created to look into the distant past of genetics, as far back as 100,000 years, through something called Haplogroups, which look back to a single shared ancestors in the distant recesses of the past.

On my biological father's side, I belong to a haplogroup called P305, which belonged to Y-chromosome Adam, an African and very ancient human male. Much later there is U106, which moved into Europe somewhere between 4,250-14,000 years ago, and then finally there is L48, my most recent haplogroup, and a mysterious one, whose age is unknown and is mostly found in Belgium, the Netherlands, and England, among a few other places.

I can follow the evolution of my maternal DNA like this, starting with a haplogroup called L3, which originated in East Africa 67,000 years ago, and then split off into R about 55,000 years ago, which moved into East Asia, and finally turned into  K1a sometimes in the last 18,000 years, approximately. It represents only 2 percent of the population of Northern Ireland, but that's my population, right there.

But there is something else there. I am not genetically Jewish. There is not a hint of Ashkenazi Judaism in any of my tests. But I share a common ancestor with Ashkenazi Jews.

You see, before K1a, there is the K haplogroup, which developed in West Asia around 27,000 years ago, and K is the maternal haplogroup most frequently claimed by Ashkenazi Jews.

Let's stop here for a moment.

Let's stop, because ethnicity is not determined by genetics, and neither is religion. There is a real problem, in fact, with people claiming genetic identities with which they have no other connection. I have especially heard complaints about this from Native American and Rom Gypsy authors, who write about ostensibly white people who suddenly discover some distant ancestry and begin to show up at Indian or Gypsy events, claiming membership and even leadership.

Instead, I'd like to suggest that this demonstrates how awesomely complicated our genetic heritages are, and how they can dovetail with ethnicity in interesting, if not definitive, ways.

I am already a Jew, regardless of my haplotype. I am because I was adopted by a Jewish family and raised within a Jewish tradition. I am culturally Ashkenazi, because that is the tradition I was raised in, and pursue an interest in the experience of Eastern European Jews because that is where my grandparents came from, regardless of whether I have a genetic connection with the region or not.

I am also an Irish-American, and am so because I have direct Irish ancestors, and I have spent my life exploring and participating in the Irish-American experience.

I would offer this suggestion to anyone who gets these sorts of tests: Each ethnic group determines its own membership, but it is generally accessed through some combination of familial relationship and participation. If you discover you have a distant genetic relationship with a group that otherwise you have had no experience with, find out what membership means for them before you claim it for yourself.

And realize that these DNA tests are a relatively new science. They are pretty good at communicating the fact that there is tremendous uncertainty in their results -- try to respect that. Because you don't want to run out and learn Lithuanian and buy a Lithuanian folk costume and start showing up at Lithuanian-American events, if they'll have you, only to have an algorithm update and suddenly declare you Polish.

Identity politics is hard enough without throwing in mistaken identity politics.