Germany, but it could be that 500 years ago your
shared ancestor lived in Italy,” Bolnick explains.
Going further back in time, that stretch of DNA
may look like it came from Romania, Mongolia and
Siberia. “As people move and the genes that they
have move with them, it’s going to change what
those geographic ancestries look like,” she says.
Given the timing of my family’s migrations, I
would have expected a much bigger percentage
of my ethnicity to come from the newer immi-
grants. I thought my British ancestry would have
been diluted after hundreds of years in America,
but I guess not.
Further complicating matters, most people
think of their ancestry as coming from particular
countries, but genetics cuts across and transcends
national borders, Bolnick says. In reality, those
categories are not genetic, they’re sociopolitical
Smith, in South Florida, agrees: “From a DNA
perspective, it’s hard to tell a French person from
a German person.”
And some groups, including aboriginal populations in Australia and big
parts of Africa and Asia, are mostly
absent from companies’ databases.
The same goes for Native Americans,
whose samples in public databases
are small, and in some cases, were
collected by questionable means,
says Krystal Tsosie, a geneticist at
Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
She’s talking about “vampire projects,” in which
geneticists swooped in to draw blood from native
people, then disappeared. Some scientists have
misused DNA samples taken from members of
several indigenous nations, conducting studies the
DNA donors didn’t consent to and doing studies
that contradicted the groups’ cultural and religious beliefs.
In 2002, the Navajo (Diné) Nation — Tsosie’s
tribe—declared a moratorium on genetic
research. Recently, tribal members have discussed
lifting the moratorium, but for now it remains in
place, Tsosie says. “We’ve been, for so long, used
as research subjects and not really equitable part-
ners in research,” she says. “We’re still waiting for
the conversation to change to allow us to have our
As a result of this mistrust of genetic research,
there are not enough people from the 566 feder-
ally recognized tribes in the genetic databases to
enable customers to learn about their tribal heri-
tage from DNA tests. And even if a DNA test could
establish that a person carries DNA inherited from
a Native American ancestor, that doesn’t make that
person a member of the tribe, Tsosie says. Tribal
memberships are based on family and
community ties, not DNA.
As a volunteer for the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee,
Tsosie gets a lot of questions. People
get Native American results and want
to know if they can share in gaming
profits. “It’s not enough to just call
yourself a Native American,” she says.
“I tell them, you have to go through
the genealogy” and document your
ancestry. “Typically, the response is,
‘Oh, that sounds like too much work.’ ”
That response baffles her. “If knowing this
Native American past — this part of you — is so
important, then undergoing the legwork and
documentation should be important,” she says.
Equally puzzling is why people base their identities on randomly inherited SNP patterns, she says.
“Our character, who we are, who we come from is
a complex story of a variety of nonbiological factors. To reduce that to a test kit is actually going to
ignore the beauty and complexity that is us.”
Some ads for testing companies reinforce the link
between DNA and identity. An AncestryDNA ad
features Kyle Merker, a real person, who says that
he grew up thinking he was of German descent. He
even danced in German folk groups and wore lederhosen. Merker’s DNA suggests he’s not German
at all, but predominantly Scottish and Irish. He’s
swapped his lederhosen for a kilt.
Geneticist Krystal Tsosie
says people’s identities
are composed of much
more than their DNA.
Reference check Testing companies estimate ethnicity by comparing customers’
DNA with the DNA of people in reference populations around the world. But companies have different reference populations and divide the world differently, as seen in
this comparison of AncestryDNA’s and MyHeritage’s reference population maps.