Where do we come from?

Have you ever wondered where would you find your ancestors if you had the chance to travel back in time? Whether they tried to get rich during the gold rush in California in the 1890s? Or whether they fought in the army of Catherine the Great annexing the Crimea in 1783? Did they perhaps live in Rome when Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Galileo Galilei arrived there in 1633 to face charges of heresy for advocating Copernican theory, which holds that the Earth revolves around the Sun? Or did they live in South America at the time Magellan discovered the strait down there in the 1520s?

Sometimes I wish I could see what my ancestors did in the past in order to get a clearer picture where I come from and get a greater sense of belonging to a community reaching through time. That’s why I was really curious what the National Geographic Ancestry Test could offer me. I wanted to get to know my genetic history and my ancestry lineage, while I also wanted to participate in the research project of the National Geographic called the Genographic Project.

National Geographic ancestry test
Geno 2.0 Human Migration Map. Courtesy of National Geographic

So I ordered their Genographic DNA Ancestry Kit for $199.95 – my first ancestry test and the very first genetic test I paid for. I’m especially glad to know that my money will serve a good cause: by ordering the test, I support NatGeo’s research, conservation, and exploration projects around the globe.

Before starting the test, I was aware that genetic history reaches far beyond the past centuries – it goes back thousands of years, so you have no chance of knowing what happened to your ancestors in the past centuries. I also knew that I will definitely not get a magic telescope to see whether my ancestors cheered when Anne Boleyn, the most famous of Henrik VIII’ wives was beheaded at the courtyard of the London Tower, but I still placed high hopes on the findings and wished to get to know more about my origins.

The Genographic Project

National Geographic launched the overarching project more than ten years ago in cooperation with IBM. It is basically a multi-year, global genetic anthropology study that aims to map historical human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples. As of 2017, over 830,000 participants in over 140 countries have joined the project consisting of two phases. The first period enlisted a consortium of 11 global regional scientific teams who undertook sample collection and DNA analysis in their respective continental regions. Also, more than 470,000 members of the public took the test in the first phase. Relaunched in 2012 as Geno 2.0, the project grew to include more DNA markers and provide even more detailed ancestral results. More than 275,000 people joined Geno 2.0. so far.

Through the genetic test using a custom-built genotyping chip and testing nearly 750,000 DNA markers, anyone can participate in the project. It helps the effort of scientists discover the migratory history of the human race out of Africa. It’s truly a fascinating journey into the past!

How does the testing process work?

I already had some experience with genetic tests in my life – you find my review about Navigenics here, Pathway Genomics here, Gentle Lab there and Futura Genetics there, but there are more on the market: FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com, Complete Genomics, or WeGene. The testing process usually looks like the following: you provide a saliva sample, send it back in some specified form to the company and after some weeks, they will let you know the result. It is not that much different in the case of NatGeo either.

After you receive the DNA Ancestry Kit, you are asked to do a routine cheek swab that is fast and easy. I had to spin the sampling stick for 40 seconds in each of my cheeks and then to put the stick into a little pot with some fluid to preserve the DNA. I sent it back to the company and circa eight weeks later I received an email announcing that the gate to my past is open.

National Geographic ancestry test

How do National Geographic’s scientists trace your ancestry lineage?

Before moving on to my results, let me briefly explain you the science behind the ancestry test. Geneticists have discovered that different parts of your DNA can tell you about historical and prehistorical events in your ancestral story. It is written into your cells like a code waiting to be decoded. Scientists can estimate when or where these events happened by looking for small variations in your DNA and that of other people around you.

These small variations are called mutations. Mutations are usually rare and, in nearly all cases, occurred only once in the past. Therefore, any two people who share a rare mutation must have inherited it from a shared common ancestor. National Geographic starts to construct your personal story by counting your rare mutations – or genetic markers – and comparing them to those of thousands of other people. This is also the reason why the testing process will become more precise over time: the more people, the merrier results.

And how do they find these rare mutations among the millions of specific genetic information? Especially if you consider that parents do not transmit their genetic code perfectly to their kids, there is always plenty of variations and finding mutations is like finding a needle in the haystack. However, researchers found that there are two bits of DNA passed on almost entirely unchanged. These are the Y-chromosome passed on from father to son on the paternal line, while the mitochondrial DNA from mother to daughter on the maternal line. These give the basis of their analysis.

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Illustration of Y Chromosome and mitochondrial DNA lineages. Courtesy of National Geographic.

Tracking migratory patterns of humanity through ancestry mapping

In order to map out your ancestry lineage, National Geographic determines your deep ancestry based on your Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, as well as your regional ancestry. In the case of the latter, the researchers use the achievements of the so-called population genetics. It means that populations living in the same area over time tend to share more common DNA variations than people in other parts of the world. The reason is clear: a Korean pearl diver was more likely to marry the daughter of another Korean pearl diver than an Italian aristocrat from Tuscany.

Researchers already identified hundreds of distinct groups based on similar DNA build-up, the so-called haplogroups. Moreover, scientists look at these variations and how they changed over time and so they are able to trace back the migratory patterns of various populations in different haplogroups in the past. This is how National Geographic researchers discovered that European Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe most probably migrated from Northwest India through the Balkans to Europe based on their genetic code. The Genographic study showed that more than 40 percent of Roma men belonged to the South Asian haplogroup, while less than 1 percent of non-Roma belonged to that haplogroup. These are amazing findings!

My ancestry lineage is surprisingly homogeneous

I stem from Hungary, Central Europe, a region between the East and the West with a constant migration of peoples throughout history, thus I expected a mixture of many haplogroups in my DNA. Instead, I turned out to be 72 percent Central European, 22 percent Southern European and 3 percent Scandinavian. The researchers located my first reference population as Romanian, while the second one as Polish. For me, it was interesting to see that the Hungarian origin is not mentioned in the explanatory text. Today, this part of the world is associated with Slavic and Baltic cultures, as well as Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak, and German peoples. I am still wondering what should be the cause for this. Apart from this, I consider these results as highly interesting and useful in mapping my past (500-10,000 years back in time) and the community I belong to.

By analyzing my Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, National Geographic’s researchers found out how my ancestors migrated from Africa to Central Europe. It was interesting for me to see that my predecessors on my maternal line went through a shorter route – through Egypt, the Arabic peninsula and then the Caucasus or Turkey – to Europe as my grand-grand-grand fathers who chose to travel to India first, then went back to the Ural steppes before reaching the Carpathian basin. Maybe with more Hungarians sharing their results with the project’s researchers, we could trace back the origins of our population.

ancestry test

Genius matches and hominin ancestry

While your deep and regional ancestry lineage is truly fascinating, I did not quite catch the meaning and significance of the so-called “genius matches”. National Geographic promises to tell you that based on your Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA when in ancient history your maternal or paternal line diverged from Abraham Lincoln’s, Mother Theresa’s or Napoleon’s lineage.

As it could happen 65,000 years ago as well, I cannot really see its relevance. It is a little bit like saying that tablets and laptops all had the common ancestor in the Commodore 64 once. While it is an intellectually interesting piece of information, I doubt I can profit from it in my daily life. For example, it would certainly be strange to go to my doctor and tell her that I might have a risk for stomach cancer as Napoleon most probably died of stomach cancer and we share a common ancestor back in the distant past.

And finally, the ancestry test provided me with answers to a question I did not know I have in my mind before embarking on this journey. The human DNA also contains traces for episodes when our human ancestors met other hominin species in the distant past, circa 50,000 years ago, and interbred. These “cousin” species, like the Neanderthals, are now extinct, but the genetic makeup of nearly everyone born outside of Africa today includes 1 to 2 percent DNA from these hominins, living relics of ancient encounters. My DNA has 1.1 percent Neanderthaler in it, which is less than the average. It is also something interesting to know but it goes back so far in the distant past that it is certainly more exciting for scientists than for average users.

Genius Matches - ancestry test

What to do with my results and raw analytical data?

For Geno 1.0 and Geno 2.0 participants the raw analytical output from the DNA sample is available to as a CSV file, while for Geno 2.0 Next Gen Participants, the raw analytical output from your DNA sample is available for purchase through National Geographic’s partner, Family Tree DNA. It is quite useful to have this data set in your hands, as you can utilize it for further purposes. I collected it here how to analyze your raw genetic data at home!

Besides, you can print out your National Geographic Ancestry Test results, you can offer it for further research – which I gladly did – or you can search for your family tree with the help of various websites.

To sum up, the National Geographic ancestry test was an interesting new experience for me – a lot different than all the other genetic tests I had before. I got used to the fact that genetic tests usually provide me with palpable results: my health risks, my drug sensitivities or any other genetically relevant information which I can utilize in my daily life to live healthier. However, the ancestry test gave me a unique insight into my distant past, moreover, into the migratory route what my predecessors undertook thousands of years ago. So, if you are looking for medical insights from a genetic test, I do not recommend taking the test. However, if you have the curiosity of a historian and would like to discover the community you and your ancestors belong to, I would definitely advise you to order one.

ancestry test

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