Who the Hell are You?

Photo by Jonathan Farber

I’ve been working on our family history and got to thinking about inherited traits. What characteristics of those long forgotten ancestors are still evident in me? Our family line can be traced accurately back three hundred years, at which point the evidence gets harder to find, and three hundred years is not long in the scheme of things. That’s where DNA comes in. For a few hundred dollars, a simple test returns the makeup of your ancestry, and while interesting, for most, it’s usually not going to reveal any earth-shattering information about your past; at least, that’s what people think.

Too much Spanish wine

I’d guess that like most Anglo-Saxons, I’ve got a bit of Viking in me somewhere, probably Celt; a little German or French perhaps. My optometrist reckons I’ve got Iberian genes; he can tell from looking in my eyes, he says. Perhaps I just eat too much paella and drink too much Spanish wine, or maybe I have some Spanish explorer’s blood, and that’s where I get the need to travel. With the popularity of DNA testing and the cheap costs that go along with it, it’s inevitable that some surprises are going to come along, and some real shocks too.

Photo by Liam Welch


Who you think you are and where you come from is not always as clear as you may think. A close friend of mine– let’s call her Dot for the sake of anonymity– had her world shattered in the most bizarre circumstances when her father died. She had not been getting along with her mother for some years at the time, but with her father’s passing, she put her feelings aside and came to her ageing mother’s support. As is so often the case with elderly people needing care, it was a thankless task for Dot. As her mother’s health declined, she became abusive towards her carer. One day, to spite Dot, she revealed that Dot’s deceased father was not her real dad. Of course, this news was devastating, and Dot’s mother refused to reveal who the real father was. A few years later, Dot’s mother passed away. Dot went to her house to clean it out and found her (Dot’s) birth certificate, which stated clearly that Dot’s father was, in fact, her real father after all, but in an extraordinary twist, her mother was not her real mother. Dot’s father had brought a child of his own to the marriage and never revealed the truth to Dot. Subsequently, Dot tracked down her real mother, who was still alive, and Dot found she was one of twelve children. She thought she was an only child but now has eleven brothers and sisters. Wow! All those Christmas presents.

Buyer beware!

With DNA tests, it’s a case of buyer beware. Are you sure you want to know? Had Dot had her DNA tested, it would certainly have revealed the truth, and it seems that this kind of revelation is becoming quite common, given the availability of tests. Secret liaisons and casual affairs can lead to some interesting lines of ancestry. Who would guess before taking that swab of saliva, that they came from a long line of milkmen? What isn’t always known is that after taking the test, results are compared to anyone else on the database. So suddenly finding you have sisters and brother, fathers and mothers, that you didn’t know about, can be a very real consequence.

Photo by Louis Reed

There are other serious implications concerning these tests; some offer medical information on a genetic level. While some would rather not know the results, there is potentially lifesaving repercussions in knowing that you carry certain genes.

So does having this knowledge get us any nearer to discovering where we got that artistic streak, or that athletic prowess, why some are good with numbers or have a head for science? Maybe, and as the development of DNA analysis continues, who knows what may be revealed in the future with a simple spit. Didn’t witches do that once, look in your spittle and tell your fortune? I’m not sure if I want mine tested; I’m fairly confident about my own ancestry, although I do have a hankering for a bottle of milk now and again.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska