How One DNA Study Is Changing Our Story

neanderthalphotoPhoto: Courtesy of The Genographic Project.
Genetically speaking, I am just so boring. Growing up, my mom told me to identify as Northern European Mutt, which is how you say WASP when you're too polite to say WASP. Family lore claims that our first American ancestor was kicked out of the Jamestown colony for making liquor. If that’s not the WASPiest thing you’ve ever heard, please, do email me — because I want to hear your WASP story. I dare you to out-boring my background.
But, with one cheek swab, things got a lot more interesting for me. Like most people, I'd dabbled on, hunting for undiscovered diversity or juicy historical gossip, only to find 500 years of white people on both sides of my family. Thanks to The Genographic Project, though, I got to go deeper — 60,000 years deeper.
I reached out to the organization after a routine dermatology appointment. During the exam, my doctor noted a small cluster of brownish spots on my cheek. I waited patiently for her to say “cancer,” but instead she just shook her head and moved on.
"That’s just because of your Caribbean background."
Pardon? "I don’t have a Caribbean background."
"Are you sure?"
"Pretty sure it’s all northern Europe in there," I pointed at my February-pale face. The doctor shrugged.
"Well, you wouldn’t have those particular spots otherwise. So, someone somewhere did something.” My French-Caribbean doctor then elbowed me and smirked: “My sister."
The Genographic Project was launched in 2005 by The National Geographic Society. It's headed up by Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist who approached the organization with "this crazy idea to sequence the world’s DNA." The long-term anthropological study tackles this lofty goal with a two-pronged approach: First, "we’ve got researchers out in the field working with indigenous populations," Dr. Wells explains. This research provides a wealth of data regarding cultural lineages. The other part of the story is filled in by the general public — myself included.
"We can actually trace the migratory patterns of your ancestors from an African origin, across the whole planet, over the last 60,000 years or so," Dr. Wells adds. For $160, anyone can join the Genographic Project, using a simple DNA kit provided by the study. In exchange for throwing your DNA into the database, the team provides users with a detailed breakdown of their own ancestral path. The technology is similar to programs like 23 & Me, but the results are entirely different. You get back a heap of historical data — not medical. I sent my cheek swab off to National Geographic, and a few weeks later I got an email with almost more information than I could handle.
While the results didn’t tell me where I’d gotten those little brown spots, they did inform me that I was 3.1% Neanderthal, a member of the H24A haplogroup, and my first reference population was German. I was 43% Northern European, 38% Mediterranean, and 18% Southwest Asian. Dr. Wells kindly agreed to walk me through my results on the phone, explaining that, "all Europeans are a mix of those. It’s the relative percentages that tell us something about where in Europe your ancestors would have come from."
migrationPhoto: Courtesy of The Genographic Project.
The H haplogroup is another thing I share with all of Europe. It originated sometime during the last ice age, when most groups living in the northern hemisphere were forced south: "They headed to the beach for the winter, in effect," says Dr. Wells. When things thawed, people migrated back north and expanded outwards, creating what would become contemporary European populations. "Your ancestors were a part of that migration," Dr. Wells tells me.
Looking back on the notes from my conversation with Dr. Wells, I found myself still grasping for takeaways. I stared at the data for 10 minutes, and then I remembered: I am not a scientist. Luckily, I am related to one.
My uncle, Webb Keane, is an anthropologist and professor at the University of Michigan. I emailed him the documents and a brief note saying what I was too intimidated to say to Dr. Wells: "I don’t get it. Love, Kelsey"
He wrote back a few days later, explaining what the test revealed: "Most of your ancestors are connected in some way to the first settlers of Northern Europe — no surprises there! A smaller percentage are descended from groups who showed up in Northern Europe later on. Because those groups came from the Mediterranean and Middle East, they left more of their descendants behind in those places." Hence the mix of European, Mediterranean, and Southwest Asian. "Having said that, you are probably related to almost everyone who was alive in Europe in deep prehistory… If you go back 3000 years, in theory you would have 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376 ancestors."
Still, experts estimate the population at that time was between 50 and 115 million. What does that mean? "First," my uncle explained, "there has been a LOT of inbreeding over the centuries." Cool. "Second, deep history gets very general very quickly."
In the end, The Genographic Project didn’t reveal a great deal about me, personally. But, had I come from a more diverse or unusual background, the data might have filled in some gaps. It’s also worth noting that this test only showed my maternal line; if I wanted to trace my dad’s ancestry, he’d have to swab his cheek as well. (Males are able to trace both lines with one swab.) Still, for the first time, I came to understand just how incredibly diverse and similar we all are on a DNA level.
bluemigrationPhoto: Courtesy of The Genographic Project.
The Mystery Of The Brownish Spots was never solved because, in fact, they’re not all that mysterious. They’re simply a flicker of an ancient history cropping up on my 21st-century cheek. Ice ages, historic wars, colonialism — all our DNA has been tweaked here and there by these events. Another genetic study recently revealed that 16 million men — .5% of the earth’s male population — are directly descended from Genghis Kahn because of many wives and, frankly, a lot more rape. Another thing I learned from this project: Our history as a people is not always nice. And, not everyone is happy to have the not-nice details revealed.
Certain groups have declined to participate in The Genographic Project for those very reasons. Some note that the stark results of DNA tests may conflict with long-held cultural beliefs and religious origin stories. Dr. Wells argues against this criticism, saying it’s paternalistic to assume people can’t handle their DNA information. "I don’t think people, at their core, are ostriches," he told The New York Times in one report. "Everyone has an interest in where they came from."
In the nearly 10 years since the project began, Dr. Wells and his team have gathered more information than we’ve ever had about our story as a species. Nearly 700,000 people have thrown their DNA into the ring, and with each new participant, the clues become clearer. Each person adds a piece of a piece of a piece to the puzzle, and the end result may answer what we’d all like to know: Why us?
"We nearly went extinct as a species 75,000 years ago," says Dr. Wells. "Total human population probably dropped down to two or three thousand individuals, living in Africa. And, we came back from that to dominate the world. There are 7.2 billion people on earth today. How did that happen?"