Update – March 2013
A few years ago I donated some of my DNA to science.
For birthday presents one year, my wife and I bought each other DNA swab kits from National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Who says romance is dead?
The project is a partnership between National Geographic and IBM. Computer analysis is performed against the DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people that have bought the kits. The project has also been analysing DNA collected from indigenous peoples. The ultimate goal of the project is to map how the Earth was originally populated. It is an anthropological project, aiming to show migration routes over tens of thousands of years.
When the swab kit arrives you scrape a few cells from inside your mouth, pop them into the sterilised tube and then send them back to the US. The price of the kit funds the research and the randomised ID that you are given lasts forever.
The project team will test either your mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child and reveals your direct maternal ancestry; or for males only, your Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son and reveals your direct paternal ancestry.
This DNA is generally passed unchanging from generation to generation. However, random mutations sometimes happen. These mutations are known as markers, and by establishing where the marker first appeared, a map can be generated. The markers can be used to place you on a particular branch of the human family tree, with each branch representing a unique group of DNA sequences known as a “haplogroup”.
The technique ultimately allows us to establish deep ancestry and analyse historical human migration.
A few months after returning your DNA sample you can go to the National Geographic website, type in your ID and generate your report and map. The first time I excitedly did this resulted in….extreme disappointment. My ancestors didn’t get about much. They left Africa about 60,000 years ago and went straight to South-East Asia. Interesting, but I could have guessed that without the DNA analysis!
I did, however, discover that my haplogroup is R1a1.
[Note: The Genographic Project can't tell you when your report is ready - essentially you donate anonymously and your ID is random. You just have to try your ID every few weeks or so until a report and map appears.]
My wife’s report and map were far more interesting. The story of her Ancestral Line begins with “Mitochondrial Eve” about 150,000 years ago and leaves Africa about 80,000 years ago. Her ancestral route then moved through the Near East towards the Black Sea and then gradually towards Scandinavia.
And this is where the trail goes cold. About 50% of the Saami in Finland, the reindeer hunters who follow the herds from Siberia to Scandinavia each season, have the same lineage as my wife.
You know what that means? My wife is most likely descended from Vikings! That explains everything!
Anyway, I mentioned that the ID you are given lasts forever.
As the project gathers more and more data, more detailed maps are created. 2 or 3 years after generating my boring migration route, I revisited the website and typed in my ID. And I was delighted with the results. Lots of intermediate steps had been added. My ancestral journey was still Africa to South East Asia, but it now showed my ancestors went to South East Asia via Europe. In fact, 10,000 years ago my ancestors were in the Ukraine taming wild horses!
From the Ukraine there was a split with some migration towards Western Europe and some towards south East Asia.
The Genographic project started in 2005 and aimed to end in 2010. However, as the project is still popular with the public and people are still returning DNA samples, the project has been extended to run to at least the end of 2011. Kits are still available for purchase.
So, it’s not too late to discover what your ancestors have been doing for the last few tens of thousands of years. You could learn something amazing about your ancestry.
And if it turns out that you are in haplogroup R1a1, we should catch up. We’re related.
Update – January 2013
The National Geographic project I participated in (and described above) has now closed. I’m very pleased with what I discovered about my ancestry and am very happy to have participated.
That project has now been replaced with ”Geno 2.0 - Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit“. I don’t know anything about this project at the moment – from a quick scan of the FAQ (especially the question: What’s the difference between the Geno 2.0 test and the previous test?), it appears as though you get more for your money now. More genetic markers are now being tested:
The new test analyzes thousands of markers on both the Y chromosome and mtDNA, providing the richest levels of genetic and geographic resolution for these lineages.
I only had my Y chromosome tested in previous project.
Perhaps I’ll join the Geno 2.0 project too one day and blog about the results for that.Follow @kashfarooq
I recorded a version of this for episode 73 of the Pod Delusion – a podcast about interesting things.