Unleashing my geeky side with 23andMe

genetic test, 23andMe, genealogy, family background

The North African guy on the left is, thankfully, not a relative. The guy on the right, however, may be a distant relative.

I have a confession; I have a geeky side. I am fascinated by genealogy and have researched my family background in considerable detail. When offered the chance to take this one step further and have my DNA tested by specialists 23andMe, I leapt at the opportunity.

Even if I say so myself, I have a colourful background that is very difficult to research. On one side of the family, my ancestors hail from Northern Ireland and Scotland. On the other, they were culturally French but had lived in North Africa for about two centuries.

Would a DNA test reveal strong African links? Could it shed any light on where my Northern Irish relatives hailed from? Was I really, as family rumour claims, related to Scottish folk hero Flora MacDonald? Here’s how I got on.

What’s involved in the test?

It’s very simple, if ungentlemanly / unladylike. You have to provide a sizable saliva sample. You seal this in the container provided, place it in a pre-paid carton and post it to the lab where it will be tested. You set up an online account and a couple of weeks later your results come through via your account.

This is not a paternity test!

The 23andMe test is essentially set up for two reasons;

  1. So you can discover more about your ancestry and
  2. To discover if you carry any identifiable genes that could develop into serious medical conditions.

I did obtain results about medical background but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to concentrate on my heritage.

The pack comes with a very clear warning that it may reveal information relating to your paternity (or indeed maternal line) that you were not expecting. It is, however, not set up or marketed for this specific purpose.

What did I learn?

I went into this with one set of ideas. I didn’t believe my ancestors could spend so long in Africa without some inter-marriage along the way. It seems, however, that the rigid social constructs of colonial society prevented this happening as my DNA is almost entirely European and a shade over 40% British and Irish. Stick with me ‘though, because this is where I received a massive genetic bombshell.

The great thing about 23andMe is that it compares your DNA with various notable individuals whose DNA is in the public domain. To my amazement, I share genetic material with none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If you’re going to have African heritage, you may as well have the best!

23andMe, genetic test, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

An exceedingly distant relative, but a relative nonetheless.

As I said, I have a very detailed family history going back centuries. Nowhere in my background is there a hint of any Welsh whatsoever. This has always surprised me as the other regions of the UK are all represented.

That said, someone in my background must be from the valleys. Why so? Well, actress and social activist Susan Sarandon is also an exceedingly distant relative. Sarandon famously traced her family back to Wales when she appeared on the BBC’s Who do you think you are?

Susan Sarandon, 23andMe, genetic test

Bizarrely, my DNA has also come back as a shade under 20% Norwegian (hence the picture of Morten Harket above). I can only assume my Scottish background is in fact part Viking. I also discovered that I share genetic material with both Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette. I imagined this would come from my French ancestors but it didn’t. It came from my maternal, British bloodline. Even Bono and I are distantly related, although discovering such a thing probably shows why you should think long and hard before undertaking a DNA test!

I think I’d better stop now…
I admitted that genealogy brings out the geek in me. I could go on and on and on but I shall leave it there.

It’s been a fascinating experiment. I have learned things about my distant family background I never knew. I mentioned to several people that I was doing this test and they did query my reasoning, expressing concern that I may not like what I discovered, especially on the health side.

The concerns were well meant, but I was so curious I was always going to persevere no matter hwat (and I look so like both my parents there was no question of my parentage). The advice I’d give is that you should be confident about your recent family background or at the very least prepared to deal with any unexpected finds. If you aren’t sure about this, don’t do the test because you can’t unsee the results.

The 23andMe test costs £125 and you order online from its website.

Disclosure; for review purposes I was provided with a genetic test. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

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6 Comments

  1. May 6, 2015 / 12:04 pm

    What an interesting idea! I’m not sure which tickled me more, though, you being genetically related to Desmond Tutu or to Morten Harket from A-ha. (Yes, I know I’m a sad 80s geek for recognising him …)

    • John Adams
      Author
      May 6, 2015 / 12:38 pm

      It’s crazy what came to light because of the test! To be hyper-accurate, however, we all have African DNA because that’s where humans evolved from. Just fascinating I share some of the same material as the Arch Bish!

  2. May 6, 2015 / 3:14 pm

    Wow! This sounds like too much geeky fun. I have a passing interest in genealogy, but I’m not sure the price tag is enticing enough at the moment. Maybe a birthday treat at some point.

    • John Adams
      Author
      May 13, 2015 / 4:27 am

      Totally get what you mean. When you have a few speare quid one day ‘though, do give it a go. It was fascinating.

  3. May 7, 2015 / 6:57 am

    Wow, this must have been fascinating to do, my grandfather was very much into family history, and the family tree, he passed it all on to my sister, but sadly we now have no idea where it all is since her death, but hopefully it will turn up.

    • John Adams
      Author
      May 13, 2015 / 4:26 am

      It was fascianting. Well worth it if you’re into this kind of thing. Hope you can rediscover your family history.