DNA Day: 23andMe Genetic Ancestry Results + Review

Today's blog post has nothing to do with fashion or style, but more to do with the art and beauty of what makes us human: our DNA. Today seemed most appropriate to share, as it is National DNA Day.



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It was during my anthropology days in college that I first heard of the personal genomics company 23andMe, as in 23 pairs of chromosomes. They send you a "spit kit" and test your DNA using your saliva, and three months later you learn where your ancestors likely came from and what genetic diseases you may be a carrier for. I had been looking forward to the day when I could afford the kit, which I think used to be around $200. Then the FDA forced them to stop marketing their health results to consumers, and their price dropped to $99. Bingo. I had my chance.

(However, the FDA has since approved them to provide health results again, so the price is back at $199).

So last spring I ordered the spit kit but took forever in sending it back. By the time I did and they processed my results, it was already fall. I got my results last November, and they completely changed the way I view my ancestry. First let me tell you what hunches I had.

MY HUNCHES:
  • All of my family is from the same place: Matanzas, Cuba. Based on what my grandparents told me whenever my curious self asked about the past, all of my great-great grandparents were originally from the Canary Islands.
  • The Canary Islands belong to Spain but are really off the coast of Morocco and the Sahara. In my mind this meant the original inhabitants were of North African descent. 
  • Spain was ruled by the Moors for like 800 years, and my mom's paternal side of the family has "Moro" (as the Cubans call it) looking features, such as lots and lots of hair and dark undereye circles.
  • I don't sweat easily and I do not like water. Actually, I'm very friolenta (always cold) and it takes a lot for me to sweat. Like one time I went in a sauna with some of my friends on a cruise, and it took me over fifteen minutes to start sweating while everyone else was already glistening three minutes in. As for water, my body just doesn't ask for it, unless I've been unusually active or out in the sun all day. 
Taken together, these pieces of data led me to believe that I had signficant Middle Eastern ancestry. In my mind, I don't sweat or crave water easily because my people came from the desert. That's what I would say to myself to justify my horribly low water consumption. And just look at this picture of my grandpa in his day. Look at that beautiful, Mediterranean-looking face.

Handsome Grandpa
I miss him everyday. 
Also, look at my eyes and nose here. Very Middle Eastern looking, imo.

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HOW IT WORKS

So the process is very simple. You just pay for your kit and get it in the mail. Here's how it works, straight from the horse's mouth:

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You have to spit an enormous amount of saliva into the tube. The funnel helps. It is really, really gross. Not gonna lie. You may have to wait for your salivary glands to replenish the amount of saliva in your mouth before you can keep spitting. Then you put your saliva sample into the "specimen bag" which goes back in the box to be mailed to them.

MY RESULTS

Ok, so without further ado, here are my results!
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Mobile view for clarity.

I am 96.4% European, 1.1% Sub-Saharan African, 1% East Asian/Native American, and only .4% Middle Eastern and North African.  Not at all what I expected.

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EUROPEAN BREAKDOWN
According to these results, my ancestors were mostly southern European and from the Iberian peninsula, which makes sense given my family's oral history and known last names. I was really surprised to find that much Northwestern European in there.

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SUB-SAHARAN AFRICAN BREAKDOWN
I was also surprised to see the Sub-Saharan percentage is slightly higher than my Middle Eastern/North African percentage!
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EAST ASIAN AND NATIVE AMERICAN BREAKDOWN
This part did, because as far as I'm concerned my great-great-grandparents all came directly from the Canary Islands (I've heard that Matanzas as a city was founded by mostly Canarian immigrants). Best case scenarios are that 1) someone with Native American ancestry traveled to Europe and contributed that DNA to me, or 2) my great-great-grandparents and their family were in Cuba much earlier than we think and an ancestor had sex with a native there, likely the Taino. Of course, given the history of colonialism in the Americas, it might have been rape.
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MIDDLE EASTERN & NORTH AFRICAN BREAKDOWN
So just .3% Middle Eastern/North African! There goes my theory on my strong Middle Eastern genes. I thought maybe these results reflected mostly my maternal lineage through mitochondrial DNA (passed down from mother to child), but after brushing up on genes 101 I remembered that women obviously get one X from mom and one X from dad, and that 23andMe tests both sex and autosomal (i.e., non-sex chromosomes) DNA. Which means these results reflect both maternal and paternal DNA.

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This illustrates how I can only know my maternal haplogroup because I don't have a Y chromosome. I'd have to get my dad tested to learn what's on that. That'd be fun. I'll get him tested one of these days. 😊
Maternal Haplogroup U6b1
So the haplogroup U6 is consistent with the Middle Eastern assumption I had, except through my maternal grandma's side, and I thought it came from my grandpa's side. The U6b1 subgroup is specifically from the Canary Islands. Accurate, given my grandparents' reports of my great-great grandparents all being from there.

NEWFOUND PERSPECTIVES

So basically, what I learned is that my family is way more European than I thought. I was pleasantly surprised to learn I had some British and Irish in me, and some Ashkenazi Jew. Whenever I visit southern Europe again and the UK and Canarian Islands I will have a newfound perspective I didn't have before. Which is next month! On that Mediterranean cruise. Can't wait. 😊

Grandparents' wedding, 1946
My maternal grandparents on their wedding day in Matanzas, Cuba, surrounded by relatives, some more Middle Eastern looking than others.  In Cuba these darker-skinned, non-Afro descended people are referred to as "trigueños." The trigueños in this picture are all related to my grandpa, which is why I thought I had more Middle Eastern genes.
PicMonkey Collage
My beautiful grandparents in their heyday. My grandpa looks so serious here. He was a serious man, but also jolly and so loving. His expression here is reflective of the times.
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Fast-forward some 70 years and here is that lovely lady with her granddaughter on Thanksgiving in the United States. Who would have told her she'd live 45+ years in the states. She'd never have left Cuba if it wasn't for Castro.
Mommy in her quinces
My pretty mom in her quinces (at 15).

Los Alonsos
Maternal family on dad's side. Their parents' parents were supposedly Canarian.
My grandma is the middle one in the last column. She's more trigueña than some of the others. People tell me I look a lot like her.
Consuelo y Consuelita
Paternal great-grandmother, looking down.
Here's my dad as a kid:

my dad

And during Father's Day last year:

My dad.

In the future I will definitely get my dad tested to discover what his Y chromosome reveals, and I may get tested through a competitor like Ancestry.com just to compare results. Another cool thing 23andMe does is alert you of any other customers  you share a portion of your DNA with. To broaden the scope even further, I've uploaded my raw data to the Gedmatch site to be alerted of any DNA relatives who have been tested by different companies.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This was a very lengthy, dense post with lots of fun technical language. I'm glad I put it together so it can live permanently in the Internet for future generations to see. I wonder what new genetic combinations those generations will be made up of. And I hope those of you who read it have found my account interesting or useful in some way. I definitely recommend that everyone get DNA tested if they're able to. Genetic ancestry results show us that we are all one. Race is surely very real on a day to day basis, as it affects our daily interactions and our core identifies. But at the genetic level race is but a social construct, with no basis in biology, as we are all mixed. Even when someone is 99% Asian, let's say, if you look within that you will find that they may be 70% Japanese, 10% Korean, 5% Chinese, etc. It's a beautiful thing to live at a time where this knowledge and how to tap into it exists. The 21st century is truly a wonderful place to exist in as a sentient human being. How lucky are we?

I'll leave you with my favorite quote, by famed biologist Richard Dawkins, who so beautifully describes how monumentally fortunate we are to have made it here:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
-Richard Dawkins

P.S. 23andMe also gave me multiple health reports but this blog post focused exclusively on genetic ancestry, which is what I love most.

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