For most of my life, I heard the same stories about my family’s history.
About how my family had been in Ireland at least 1,500 years, back to the time of the first Irish kings.
About the family farm in Northern Ireland, and the flight to the United States in 1923 after my great-great-grandfather’s death.
About my great-grandfather keeping tradition alive here in New Jersey, bouncing his grandchildren on his knee and letting them take a sip of his beer.
I ate it all up. I hung an Irish flag in my college apartment, read Joyce, listened to The Dubliners. I bought an Irish driving cap, and became certified to pour the perfect pint at Guinness in Dublin. I delighted at how my dark brown beard glistened red in the sun.
My blood was a mix of many things, but me? I was Irish.
So, when my parents bought my siblings, my wife and me AncestryDNA kits for Christmas, I knew the Anthes kids would turn up Irish.
What shocked us is how little Irish DNA the results said we had.
* * *
These genetic tests—and really, the whole idea of “What am I?”—are meant primarily for people like me: white Americans with ambiguously European heritage. The labs find their results in part by comparing your sample to the database of samples from their other paying customers. The more people—and the more diverse the people—in the database, the more accurate your results.
With most of the samples coming from people with roots in Europe, the system isn’t so good at predicting heritages outside of Europe—which is how a reporter from the technology blog Gizmodo turned up Italian even though she’s Syrian. Or how I turned up 2 percent South Asian despite no records or any DNA samples of other family members tracing roots to that region.
But the seemingly wonky results also serve as a good reminder that we are interpreting genetic data with a modern-day geopolitical lens. Our DNA has been combining and recombining in our families from way before there were lines on a map. My Irish mother’s Spanish blood and my very Calabrian wife’s Middle Eastern DNA told more about the tumultuous history of the places of their ancestors than it did about themselves.
* * *
I found myself looking very closely at maps—inches away from my computer screen, trying to parse whether my multicolored DNA map synced at all to the regions and cities in my family’s lore.
Everyone in my family returned large percentages of Great Britain; at 42 percent, I was more British than anything, according to AncestryDNA. We knew we had a few separate familial connections to Scotland, but nothing that should allow Great Britain to show up so predominately in our results. So, what exactly did AncestryDNA consider “Great Britain”?
Turns out, their “Great Britain” sphere did not include all of Northern Ireland, but it did contain County Antrim—where that famous family farm was. Could it be that what I considered Irish, AncestryDNA considered British? Adding my Irish and British bits would make me 57 percent, uh, Celtic.
We also all had Southern European traits, which Ancestry said come mainly from Greece and Italy. This was a tremendous punch to the gut since I had spent my life becoming irritated at (the many, many) people who’d look at my name and ask, “Oh, Athens, is that Greek?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve explained that Athens is a Greek city, but my name—Anthes—has nothing to do with Greece.
Perhaps it was I who had been mistaken?
But, then again, looking at the maps, “Europe South” included the German state of Bavaria as well as a nice chunk of southern France. It skirted Alsace-Lorraine, a long-disputed territory on the border of France and Germany. The family had long bought into the tale that Anthes is French-German, with the border crossing us a few times in Alsace, as well as a family connection to Bavaria.
It could be our stories were correct after all.
* * *
All this information intrigued me, and I’m glad I participated in our little family experiment. But, in the end, I realized that the DNA results made me cling more tightly to the traditions and stories I had been told my whole life—looking for loopholes that could reconcile what I had learned with what I knew already.
It reinforced for me a great American truth: as the melting pot continues to churn, more than ever, we are not what we are, but what we choose to be.
And there’s more power in that than what a tube of spit can tell us.