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What We're Made Of

By Frances Stead Sellers
Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren . . . ." So goes the biblical line of descent, cascading on the Y chromosome down the generations from father to son to grandson: Samuel begat Francis; and Francis begat John; and John begat Frances and her brothers. . . .

That Frances is me -- a Y-less woman, and thus destined, like other women, to leave this patrilineal taproot of descent and be spliced onto another man's tree; to assume, at least in traditional genealogical terms, his family, his identity and commonly his last name.

That's why family history has always seemed like such a guy thing, an exclusive men's club -- as if my paternal great-grandfather, Samuel, were somehow more important than my seven other great-grandparents. Which is ironic, because if there is any doubt about my lineage, it's most likely to lie along the male line, since a father -- unlike a mother -- can rarely be certain that he is in fact the parent of a child.

Now, though, the twin innovations of DNA analysis and do-it-yourself Internet searches are upending that male-dominant tradition. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) -- the genetic material that passes virtually unchanged from mother to child -- is allowing the re-creation of matrilineal connections that soar back through centuries. Meanwhile, Internet searches are extending family connections sideways, creating trees that emphasize a proliferation of leaves and buds rather than the roots. By feminizing and expanding the process of genealogical research, those changes have redefined the concept of "cousin" (think Dick Cheney and Barack Obama; or better still, Hillary, Madonna, Angelina and Camilla) and made "family" a, well, relative term.

Like many others, I was brought up on the heroic tales of my few notable male forebears -- seafarers who died of yellow fever among the Miskito Indians, Oxbridge scholars and clergymen who broadcast Christianity in Bombay. But my mother's ancestry soon bogs down in the dank hills of North Wales, where it's difficult to keep up with the Evanses and Robertses (not to mention the Joneses). So when Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and author of the bestselling "Seven Daughters of Eve," suggested analyzing my mitochondrial DNA, I took him up on his offer. I'd send him a few of my skin cells, and he'd connect me (as he says he can nearly every native European) to one of just seven women who lived somewhere between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago -- an ancient clan mother. An Ur-me.

One cheek swab and several weeks later, Sykes, who runs the DNA testing company Oxford Ancestors, informed me that I was a direct descendant of a female he had dubbed "Katrine," who lived some 15,000 years ago in what were then the sweeping wooded plains of northern Italy, between Venice and the Alps. As a great-something-granddaughter of Katrine, I was also a relative of Otzi the Ice Man, in whose old bones Sykes had found another mitochondrial match. (Otzi is the body that two German climbers found 17 years ago in the Italian Alps, where it had been preserved in the ice for more than 5,000 years.) I didn't inherit my mtDNA directly from the Ice Man, because men don't pass it on, but I could be descended from his sister.

Now, forgive me a little one-upwomanship. But being able to go back about 700 generations through my mother, Evelyn, her mother, Dilys, and Dilys's mother, Evelyn Augusta, to my many-times-great-grandmother Katrine -- an ancestor I share, Sykes tells me, with Katie Couric -- trumps the pedigree of any man I know. And there's Uncle Otzi to boot. And more to come.

Our ancestors (Cousin Katie's and mine) apparently migrated to Northern Europe about 10,000 years ago, when the ice began to melt. Our mtDNA is found in many parts of Britain, particularly in the west, and is, Sykes says, "a recognizable symbol of Celtic ancestry" -- which is what I'd have expected given that Evelyn, Dilys and Evelyn Augusta were all native Welsh speakers. In fact, says Sykes, it's highly likely that our ancestors "arrived in Britain very, very early on -- at least 6,000 years ago and probably from Iberia by boat."

Making me a descendant of one of the first settlers. A proto-Brit. A woad-wearer!

The kind of DNA analysis that Sykes does has become particularly popular among African Americans seeking scientific validation for the transatlantic search for roots that author Alex Haley pioneered. Many have been surprised and disappointed to discover that they have a European Y chromosome, often reflecting their descent from white male plantation owners. Their mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, is typically genuinely African, since very few African men in the United States had children with European women.

The process of using mtDNA to discover where exactly in Africa they come from isn't without flaws, though, and Sykes urges caution. He says he was able to estimate my ancestor Katrine's location in Europe by looking for mutations in the mitochondria: The more mutations found in any given geographic area, the more likely you are to have found the spot. But "if you find matching mitochondria in a community in Ghana," Sykes says, "it doesn't necessarily mean that that is the ancestral village. There are probably thousands of other villages that haven't been tested." So the tests that people are now shelling out a couple of hundred dollars for often "appear to give more security than is real."

Nonetheless, growing interest in tracing our roots has spawned a proliferation of testing companies (including several mentioned on The Washington Post Company-owned Web site the Root). Small wonder. American blacks understand better than anyone the cultural and political importance that can be attached to a single bloodline. "One drop," after all, could exclude someone from the benefits of being white in the American South just as capriciously as it could include somebody else in the benefits that come with being a member of the royal family in Britain.

The problem with that way of thinking -- as with any linear method of finding family -- is all the men and women who are left out. Go back just 12 generations (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-greats and so on), and you'll find you have 4,096 ancestors. (Though rather fewer for anyone like my husband, whose great-grandparents were, ahem, first cousins.) Focusing on a single line -- whether male or female -- fails to account for 4,095 forebears, each of whom left their genetic traces in you and in all their many other descendants. And for all its appeal to gender equality, the matrilineal line proves just as problematic as patrilineal research -- a girl thing, an exclusive women's club.

That became clear to me a couple of years ago when I plugged the name Benjamin Septimus Illingworth, my great-great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, into Google. And -- Bob's your uncle! -- up popped an e-mail address to which I sent a message. Soon I found myself in e-contact with a Canadian third cousin. It wasn't long before Janet Harrison supplied me with her (our?) family news and photos, as well as a long list of other cousins, some of whom live very close to where I grew up in southern England. We must have shopped in the same towns, might even have passed each other on the street. Fancy that, rubbing shoulders with my own flesh and blood and not knowing it.

As fellow descendants of Benjamin Septimus, Janet and I are related through my mother's father's mother, but we don't share our mitochondrial DNA and we don't have Y chromosomes. Just the kind of connection that those ancestral DNA searches fail to find.

Shortly thereafter -- and quite by coincidence -- a man called Don Montague e-mailed me. I didn't know him from Adam, but he introduced himself as a fourth cousin on my father's mother's father's side of the family. Cousin Don didn't just supply me with stories about our common ancestors, he sent me documentation about kin who are still alive -- about Horts and Beales, Patersons and Berkeleys, many of whom live in Britain, as well as a couple of ranchers in Laramie, Wyo., and a miner in Chile. Not to mention a branch in New Zealand. All members of my suddenly growing family.

Being a bit of a genealogy buff and knowing that I worked for a newspaper, Cousin Don also told me about a fifth cousin of mine whom he'd found -- a man with a title, no less, and a tippity-top job at a company that owns one of the London papers. Now, it just so happens that I once sat across the table from this man at a dinner in London. I even visited his office. If I'd only known. . . . He's just the sort of person you'd like to think you're related to. Like Cousin Katie and Uncle Otzi.

I got in touch, even invited him to stay with us next time he's in the States. He is, after all, family. Just five degrees of separation.

What a small, small world this genealogical research creates.

Now I'm thinking of planning a reunion, a gathering of the whole clan. I know I'll need a sizable space, and I suspect that it will have to be BYOB. Chances are looking pretty good that you'll be invited.

All of you.

sellersf@washpost.com

Frances Stead Sellers is editor of The Post's Health section.

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