Our knowledge of understanding and manipulating genetics have come a long way.
And you know the tech is good when it’s in the hands of consumers, and with that comes exciting possibilities for the present and the future.
It also provides the opportunity to win an argument by bringing down the full hammer of science upon the heads of your opponents.
Heritage is important. Maybe not nearly as important as who we are now, and where we’re going, but understanding where we come from can help inform those paths.
Up to this point, I’ve identified myself as equal parts English, Irish, Scottish and German. This is based purely on family lore, which says the first Hargarten to travel from Germany to America was my great-great grandfather William Hargarten near the turn of the 20th century. He was escaping conscription into the German military, the story goes, and brought his family to the United States to start a new life. My grandfather joked that despite living in a German household, his father, my great-grandfather, could only speak two words of German: “ja” and “nein.”
On my mom’s side are lots of Carters – mutts from the British Isles with a cocktail of different tribes in them, Scottish, Irish and English predominantly. The Carters have been in the U.S. forever, people with that name are very common and the family trees are huge and often disconnected, so tracing them back gets easily muddled in uncertainty.
Because of this, German heritage is how my family has most strongly identified over the past century. There’s even a town in Germany called Hargarten just outside of Trier, which I’ve visited, and there’s lore of a Hargarten University where anyone named Hargarten could attend free of charge, until the institution was bombed to ash in World War I.
The thing about family lore is that it tends to fall apart under scrutiny. There are certainly grains of truth in the legends, but the official story starts to fall apart upon inspection.
First, these stories provide a very limited view of our family’s past as it doesn’t shed any light on anything that happened before the 1800s. Additionally, the verifiable details that my family can point to suggest some very different stories.
For instance, there is indeed a town called Hargarten in Germany. But there’s another one in France, and perhaps even more than that spread across the area historically known as the Rheinland. And the Rheinland, which Hitler reclaimed for Germany in World War II, had traditionally been home not only to native Germans, but many French and Scandinavian peoples as well.
Also, the name Hargarten isn’t even German, but just sounds that way to English-speaking ears. It’s actually closer to something Norweigian or otherwise Scandinavian. And while William Hargarten was from Germany, and did speak German, that’s not necessarily where his family originally came from, and that’s where the trail goes cold when my relatives try to reconstruct our lineage. William just didn’t impart a lot of knowlegdge to his kids, and they in turn left even less to theirs, leaving my immediate and extended family members flailing in the dark. This was partially due to rising anti-German sentiment in the United States across two global wars, and the Hargarten family did what they could to submerge their cultural heritage, just short of changing the name.
Then there’s my dad, the amateur geneology sleuth who has his own battery of theories about our family’s origins, including a bunch of nonsense about British-Israelism, how there can’t be a single drop of actual German blood in our veins and other things not really borne of objective logic or evidence.
So basically, I’ve wanted to address some of these open-ended questions for years, and after consulting friends who went through a similar process, I decided to order 23andMe.
It was a simple process. I ordered the kit for about $80, sent in a saliva sample to their lab and within two months received access to an online report explaining my genetic heritage.
So what did it find?
Science has confirmed what has long been suspected: that I am the whitest person alive.
It turns out, in this case, family lore is pretty close to the truth, at least in broad strokes.
I am 100 percent European, which breaks down to 55 percent British and Irish, 19 percent French and German, 7% Scandinavian and 16 percent “Broadly Northwestern European” – whatever that means.
Oddly, the most unexpected results was the 2 percent of my chromosome that’s Iberian – easily the least-white part of my map.
And unlike many other white people from Europe, I don’t seem to have any Mongolian in me - a common trait due to Genghis Khan’s sweeping conquest of the world.
The timeline is also really interesting, showing how many generations ago my most recent ancestors from each population lived.
It’s fascinating too that the likely Scandinavian root of my last name dovetails with my most recent living fully Scandinavian ancestor dating back to the 1830s – William Hargarten would have arrived in the U.S. only some decades later.
There’s also a small, vague part – only 0.4 percent – of me labeled Easter European, which ranges between five and eight generations back in time. This is explained by 23andMe thusly: “You most likely had a third great-grandparent, fourth great-grandparent, fifth great-grandparent, sixth great-grandparent, or seventh great (or greater) grandparent who was 100% Eastern European. This person was likely born between 1710 and 1830.”
This all leaves a lot of room for long-held family concepts of our lineage to be true, at least from 50,000 feet. The genetic analysis unfortunately can’t isolate all the gritty details of my heritage, but it leaves a lot of interesting questions to ponder.
The material and paternal migrations also hold some fascinating findings, including how those grups moved from Africa and into Europe, and the fact that I’m related to King Louis XVI of France and the House of Bourbon.
It also demonstrates that no matter white someone is, we’re all descended from eastern Africa, the cradle of human civilization.
If there was an actual Eve for humanity, it would be a single woman who lived in eastern Africa up to 200,000 years ago. X chromosomes from her contemporaries have all since disappeared, making her our universal mom.
Additionally, everyone’s paternal lines trace back more than 275,000 years to a single man who was the common ancestor of haplogroup A. Rather than being analogous to the fabled Adam of western world religions, this guy was one of many eastern Africans. It’s just that his Y chromosomes were far more successful than that of his brethren, whose ancestors have all since died out.
One final tidbit of interest is that I have 305 Neanderthal variants in my chromosome, which is reportedly more than 87 percent of 23andMe customers, while accounting for less than 4 percent of my DNA.