DNA tests for ancestry: harmless fun or idiotic?

I’ve been thinking about taking one of those DNA tests on offer now, that supposedly tell you that you are 10% Central Asian, 50% northern European, etc. (I gather that the ones targeted to African Americans try to tell you what ethnic group in Africa your ancestors are from, but others have expressed doubt that such specificity is possible.)

First, let me make it clear that this is only a lark. I realize that even if the tests are perfect, so what if it turns out I have, say, 15% Mediterranean heritage? It says nothing about me or my value as a person. Of course. If I do this test, I doubt I’ll even mention the results to anyone aside from my husband and son.

However, I admit that I am curious. I’m adopted and know only a little about my biological family. (Believe it or not, my biological siblings contacted ME, not the other way around. That’s a long and different story, but suffice it to say that it is pretty much a dead end to find out “big picture” ancestry through relatives.)

I’m interested in the opinions and experiences of others. Has anyone else done it? Are these tests a waste of money? If I took the test from two different providers, would I get more or less the same answer, or might I get widely varying results? Should I go for the mitochondrial DNA test or the Y-chromosome test, and can anyone explain differences in cost, validity, or type of information these two types of testing provide?

Also, I don’t know how expensive the tests are. I can probably afford them regardless, but for the sake of argument let’s assume they are pretty pricy. Am I wasting the world’s resources? Should I stop thinking about this and go write a check to my favorite charity instead?

Being female you can only get the mithocondrial, no Y chromosome there to be tested.

National Geographic is sponsoring a study of that type, it’s $99. They send you some swabs with instructions, you take the sample (just a swab on the inside of your mouth) and send it back.

I’ve thought of getting it; my mother’s side is the one that’s officially “mongrel” (celt, iberian, phoenician, italian and anything else that ever sailed the Mare Nostrum and the northern Atlantic or walked down the Iberian Peninsula, plus some german seasoning). Doing it as part of that study would have the double value of being fun for me and of giving data to a study on human migrations for which they’ll probably get a lot of US data but maybe not enough from “parts abroad”.

I may try to convince one of my bros to get the Y part. Yes, thank you, I’ve already been told that lots of people aren’t the child of their daddy, I already said that in that case I’d be the one most likely to be not-Dad’s of the three. That side is supposed to be Basquer-than-thou (Dad’s first 32 lastnames were Basque), but I’m told the frecuency of blonde hair on that side of the family may mean some Viking. Would like to see whether any horned-helmet-bearing Y-bits come up.

Being female you can only get the mithocondrial, no Y chromosome there to be tested.

Oh yeah. Of COURSE. I knew that. Really. :smack:

I think a lot of whether it’s harmless fun or idiotic depends on the cost. $99 sounds like a lot to me, but if it’s something you are curious about and would enjoy finding out about, (and you can afford), I don’t see a problem with it. If it cost $999, then it’s clearly idiotic.

I do think you should be careful about viewing this as a way to get some answers /clarity equivalent to tracing back your genealogy. Tracing family trees means that one goes back one step at a time, as far back as you care to go. (The amount of information available for people to find out about their ancestors varies. As does their inclination to investigate the past).

DNA tests for ancestry essentially skip over all the new relations and gives information about possibly ancient history–especially if you don’t have a clear family history to compare it to.

My own interest in family history or ancestry is pretty limited. So I don’t think I’d get myself tested unless someone could persuade me that I had something unique to offer–and that this test had some benefit for society.

On the other hand, I don’t really know that I’d call this having this kind of testing done idiotic–unless it’s really pricey. So, it’s up to you. Would knowing that you are 78% Northern European and 22% Mongol complete something for you? Or would it just open the door for questions that have even less possiblity of being answered? If it’s affordable, you could certainly pay for it and write a check for the charity of your choice. If it isn’t, well, there are more important things in life than knowing where your ancestors came from.

I’ve been considering doing this for awhile. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s not really important to me, but I love science, and have been planning to do it since meeting the director of the National Geographic project, and learning about the genographic map.

The tests you ask about (the mtDNA, or y chromosome tests) aren’t going to give you a genetic breakdown, such as 10% Asian, 50% European. The mtDNA, or y chromsome DNA tests will give you information on a single line of ancestors. For example, everyone in your maternal line will have the same mitochondrial DNA. You all inherited it from the same woman, who was alive thousands of years ago. If you get the mtDNA test, you will find out where she lived, and the migration of her descendants. If a male were to get a y chromosome test, he’d find out where the men with his particular y chromosome started out, and the migration of his descendants. Tests that do offer breakdowns are supposed to determine your genetic “admixture”. These are a lot more sketchy.

I think it’s harmless as long as you know what you’re getting, and don’t have your heart set on any particular results. For example, there was a news story awhile back about a black person who wanted to find out which part of Africa his ancestors were from, but the ancestor who provided his y chromosome was from Europe. Of course, he had lots and lots of black ancestors who would never show up on the test, because none of them provided his y chromosome.

I did that one. I was hoping to get some sort of “breakdown” of my racial heritage much like outlined in the OP. I was sort of dissapointed. I found out what halogroup I belong to (T) and was told that my deep ancestors had come from the Ural Mountains area. (How boring to see the path of your ancestors pretty much goes in a straight line up from Africa!) Considering that family history gives a much more colorful recent heritage, I was a bit bummed.

My parents are Genealogists so they love those genetic tests. The tests might be able to figure out where most of your ancestors came from but you might get a bunch of unknown results back. It was very helpful to us because we have a very blended family. My mom was able to confirm the story that one of my female ancestors was a Native American slave. What she didn’t expect to find was the African blood. We think it came from the slave as that particular group that she genetically came from (which was predicted in the legend) is known for being mixed.

Also, my mom was having trouble tracing this one line of immigrants. She suspected they were given a changed name but couldn’t figure out their country of origin. Her grandpa had mentioned something about the family being Irish but she was always told other mixtures growing up. When she did the test, she was astounded by the amount of Irish and Scottish DNA. She had previously thought that part was English and didn’t expect to find much if any. I guess being Irish/Scottish in the United States used to be looked down upon so much that my Irish/Scottish immigrant ancestors covered up their past at some point. Once she figured out the home countries of those branches, she was able to find their records in those countries.

The tests can have some shocking results, as others mentioned. I figured more of my ancestors would cheat and we’d have lines that we didn’t expect at all, but a surprising amount matches up with the family stories and with the charts my parents have developed developed. You may identify as black and find that you have no African blood. You may think you are English and discover you have almost little to no English blood.

The lawyer in me wonders if this type of testing could be used to qualify for affirmative action programs…

I am a direct descendant of settlers at the First Colony at Jamestown and I have the same last name representing an unbroken male line. That part of my very extended family has a very active genealogy society with thousands of members, mini-conventions, and everything else. I have never actually participated in any of it except for reading the archives on its website.

However, I saw a while ago that they offer very specific genetic testing for the supposed male lineage in the family. It costs about $500 and sets out to prove if you are really a direct genetic descendant. It would also be used as part of a scientific study within the family. I am tempted to get it done but what if the results said that I wasn’t really descended from the line? It wouldn’t really mean much because one of my grandmothers could have been a dirty little whore in 1640, 1710, 1820, or any other year that is meaningless to me. Genetic proof that I am would be rather cool though. It is a dilemma I tell you.

I did the National Geographic one and I found it pretty cool. I’m haplogroup H, one of the most common in Western Europe apparently. It’s awesome to think I’m connected to people tens of thousands of years ago. Plus now I know my mitochondrial genome sequence. Never know when that might come in handy.

The National Geographic one is also kind of a charity - you’re providing your information so they can learn more, and you get the info too. I’m doing it, but can’t see my results yet as they haven’t gone through quality control, the last step.

The National Geographic Genographic Project.

It might be interesting to get the National Geographic one just for the sake of adding to their database. It wouldn’t hold any surprises, though – there are plenty of genealogy buffs in my family, and it’s well documented that all my ancestors are from southwestern Norway, back to at least 1700 or so.

Uh, aside from the occasional creationist, isn’t everybody?

On a similar tangent, I once read something that made the point that every single one of your billions of ancestors, back to some primordial ooze, was lucky enough to survive to childbearing age–even though throughout most of history, pre-childbearing age mortality has been very, very high.

That fact’s both interesting and obvious – and a wonderful example of selection bias. The same argument works as a response to those who claim that it’s astoundingly unlikely that the universe would be suited to allow human life–when in fact it’s impossible (given the existance of humans) for it to be otherwise.

Update - finally got my results! I’m haplogroup K, which is mostly central and eastern Europe. The interesting thing is that it says that most Ashkenazi Jews are in that group - if the mDNA is from your mother, and this group isn’t particularly Semitic, where did they come from?

Thanks for the link Silenus. I just sent in my $99 (plus shipping & handling)!

My da got one. We discovered a few things. We’re really irish, from the place we thought we were, that we are related to some people who share our last name, not related to others, descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, and that the legend of Golam, the Spanish Soldier may be correct, insofar as our family history is concerned.
(The date when we start having some spanish blood is about that far distant)

It’s fun!

Well, yeah, intellectually I already knew that. But seeing the data, the actual point mutations in my genetic code, makes it more real to me. Brings the distant past closer somehow.

Thank you!

We call that story La Canción de Breogán and I knew it had to exist in English (speaking of the obvious, uh?) as well but I’d been unable to find its name.

That was the other thing we discovered… there’s a spanish version of the story. Where y’all from? I’m not to hep on my spanish geography, so I forgot where my dad said they spoke Gaelic in spain, but I do recall that during the great flight of the Irish Dukes (White fleet? 6 AM is not a good time to remember anything) back 1640ish, that’s where they fled to.