Diving into the Gene Pool

Think you know your roots? An ancestral-DNA test unearthed a few of mine — and some big surprises too

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY JOSHUA GORCHOV

If they held a convention for racial purity, I would never make the guest list. Like most other Latin American families, mine is a multiethnic stew that has left me with the generic black-eyed and olive-skinned look typical of large swaths of the world's population. My father's family is from Peru, my mother's from Chile. Their parents were born and reared in South America. Beyond that, I know nothing about my ancestors. That was fine by me--until the new and growing industry of personal DNA analysis created a need I never knew I had.

Today at least half a dozen companies will, for about $200 a pop, take your spittle, analyze the heck out of it and tell you who and what you are. The tests are popular among adoptees, armchair genealogists and high school seniors praying that a link to some underrepresented ethnic group will help get them into the Ivies. Already a card-carrying minority, I thought a test might help me figure out a thing or two about my forebears --and my mixed-up identity.

So I hit the Internet and quickly found a couple of companies that looked promising. The first, DNA Tribes in Arlington, Va., filled its website with glossy shots of ethnic types. The next, DNAPrint in Sarasota, Fla., offered a cool Flash movie of a rotating double helix. I was doubly sold. I ordered a test from each and within a couple of days was scraping the inside of my cheek with swabs and depositing my cells into prepaid envelopes ready to be sent off to the labs.

Then I set about trying to predict the results. On my father's side, I figured, high cheekbones and almond eyes probably showed evidence of native-Andean blood. The aquiline profiles and curly hair on my mother's side, on the other hand, are common on Mediterranean shores. My best guess: I was mostly European, a bit of native South American and perhaps a dash of Middle Eastern. But like most other people who do this sort of thing, I also secretly hoped I would be related to an American Indian tribe with a lucrative casino operation. Anything that would justify the tests on my next expense account.

Within a few weeks, I received my first results, from DNA Tribes. As I had guessed, the genetic indicators showed both European and American Indian roots. But No. 1 on the list of places I was supposed to be from was--to my great surprise --sub-Saharan Africa. What's more, No. 1 on the list of the top 10 regional populations with which I was most likely to share a piece of genetic code was Belorussia, followed closely by southeast Poland and Mozambique.

That's when I began to wonder whether there had been some kind of DNA mix-up. Fond as I am of stuffed cabbage, Poland and Belorussia are not places I had ever identified with. The sub-Saharan African connection was also puzzling. Any physical evidence of black Africa has apparently been diluted beyond recognition in my murky gene pool. And while heavy traces of African blood are not unusual in Latin America, they tend to be linked to West Africa, where much of the slave trade to the Americas originated. Clearly, my ancestors got around.

My mother, when I finally told her about all this, thought I was joking. My father asked me to ring back during halftime. And none of us even want to think about how my more persnickety aunts--the ones convinced they're descendants of Spanish nobility--will react when they read about our Afro-Polish roots.

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