Many people have participated in some sort of genealogy test— a research study that collects DNA from as many people possible to track the migration patterns of human ancestors out of Africa.
Geneaology companies provide a simple kit to collect those precious epithelial cells that hold the key to your biological archive.
Whether it’s blood or spit you’re shipping off, DNA tests can reveal significant differences from what someone may have previously believed to be true about their family history. That’s what happened to Delbert Anderson.
Delbert is a trumpeter in the Four Corners Area who composes funky tribal licks along with teaching jazz. He was born in Shiprock, N.M. on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Although Delbert wasn’t raised in Navajo tradition, his birth certificate states that he is 100 percent Navajo, he said. He was compelled to learn about his genealogy when a family friend contended that his great grandfather could have been Irish due to his vibrant red hair, he said.
Seeing that scarlet locks aren’t common among his tribe, but don’t necessarily indicate that his musical chops came from a line of bagpipe players, he looked into it.
While his birth certificate states he is only Navajo, his results told him otherwise.
The data showed that Delbert is 60 percent Pueblo, 18 percent Navajo, eight percent Hispanic and four percent Asian, he said.
“A lot of Native Americans think they are the original, primitive people of their land,” he said.
In 2002, the Navajo Nation placed a moratorium for genetic testing on the reservation, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
The ban was put in place to protect tribal members’ information from studies they would not agree to, according to the NCAI.
“The whole reservation would have to get a DNA test, and it’d be interesting to have more information for the Native American side,” Delbert said. “There’s so many questions I have because I can’t help but wonder how accurate it can be, and I’m not sure of how that even works. I think it’s really strange.”
How does genealogy work? Is it just a bunch of bloodsucking creatures hiding out in Transylvania bullshitting Delbert? And if the vampires are actually reading his DNA, how are they doing it?
DNA is made up of nucleotides, which can be thought of like words. The arrangement of those words write your biography, or genome sequence.
In your biography there are going to be typos, or mutations, that are called genetic markers. If you’re a male, your genetic markers from your dad have the exact same typos on the exact same pages of his own biography. Thanks a lot dad.
Genetic markers are what scientists are paying attention to because it’s a lot easier to look for them than to read your whole life story. Not that it isn’t interesting, it’s just that your genome sequence has three billion base pairs, said Steve Fenster, Ph.D. in cell biology.
Because genetic markers are passed down to each generation, it gives a fairly straight line of information about someone’s ancestry.
After the DNA flees the confines of the cell through a chemical, it is placed inside a small tray with a bunch of compartments that slips into a machine Fenster calls Khaleesi.
The dragon queen machine, as Khaleesi is known, looks like a tiny scanner, which then creates many, many copies of the DNA through a process called polymerase chain reaction. This reaction takes only a few pages from your biography because, again, it’s just not necessary to read all of it, Fenster said.
“Every single cell in your body, except for maybe a few, has the same genetic information,” Fenster said.
Scientists need a bunch of copies of the same pages of a DNA sample for fact checking purposes, he said.
These copies are then sent off to facilities of mega brain power that have people with the mental capacity to decode the organic matter with the help of computer programs, Fenster said.
So, that encoded spit is now a decoded page of thousands of genetic sequences. Genes can be seen for all they’re worth, what they do, who they’re associated with, where they’ve been and— gosh it sounds like gossip.
This is where genealogy comes in, and how migration patterns can be associated with genes.
“They’re probably looking for certain markers that have been identified in populations that might be specific for those ethnic groups,” Fenster said. “They’re not saying that those genes they’re looking at are actually what make people have darker skin, or curly hair or blue eyes.”
So, how do the genetisists associate ethnic groups with geographic areas from thousands of years ago?
Dawn Mulhern, Ph.D. in anthropology, says that the technology today can grab genetic information from skeletons that are hundreds of thousands of years old.
The age of a skeleton does affect how much DNA it can provide, but the amount of bone needed for a sample has gotten smaller and the programs to read it have only gotten better, she said.
“From archaeology, we do know a lot about the movement of people,” Mulhern said.
An example of this is skin color variation in proximity to the equator. Light skin has only been around for six to 12,000 years, which seems to coincide with longitudinal areas and the development of agriculture, Mulhern said.
The theory is that these pale newbies figured out how to get vitamin D and other nutrients from their crops since they couldn’t catch any rays, she said.
This is where those mutations come into play, because significant changes like pigmentation only occur with genes that give a population an advantage to reproduce in their environment, Mulhern said.
Areas of ancient and modern genome sequences can tell us what illnesses people’s ancestors had to fight off, if they had allergies, parts of their personalities, and how recently some people’s ancestors got it on with Neanderthals.
“Part of it is based on artifacts and part of it is based on skeletons, and also language groups, which has its own evolutionary pattern,” she said.
For Delbert, the 60 percent of his DNA he shares with Pueblos makes historical sense to him.
Pueblo Indians lived in eastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The Spanish colonized Pueblo lands in the 1500’s, and the Pueblo Revolt would follow a century later.
After the Pueblo Revolt, many Pueblos sought refuge with nearby settlements of the Navajo. That’s bingo for his Pueblo and Navajo DNA.
His DNA’s Hispanic portion is associated with Central and South America and could also be a result of Spanish colonization.
The small percentage of Asian descent Delbert says could possibly come from the theory that Asians crossed the Bering Strait into North American about 25,000 years ago.
Results aside, many more people from Delbert’s family and the Navajo Nation would need to contribute their DNA to create a more accurate picture of his ancestry, Fenster said.
“It’s only as good as their database,” Mulhern said. “Native American data in particular is lacking, because people tend to not want to give their DNA. There’s cultural and historical reasons for that.”
For Delbert, he isn’t concerned about what the scientists have to say against his birth certificate.
“What really defines an ethnic group,” Fenster said for how people identify in relation to their culture. “I think it’s dangerous when we try to classify people based off of their DNA.”