By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jake Byrnes, Ph.D., Population Genomics Technical Manager for AncestryDNA
“I am adopted and have NO clues about my birth except a sort of “fake” birth certificate from when I was born in Texas. No family name. No known blood relatives. Would the DNA test be a good option for me anyway? What will I learn about my family from taking a DNA test?” —Rita M
As we said in our last post, DNA testing can sometimes provide truly miraculous results for adoptees wishing to pursue information about their birthparents. Below we detail one such story kindly provided to us by an Ancestry.com employee and his brother-in-law. Before jumping in to the story, we need to understand just how DNA analysis actually works to help us find out where did I come from and to whom am I related? Here’s how:
Consumer genetics tests provide an incredible genealogy entry-point for adoptees. Most tests on the market today provide two key results. The first is an estimate of where in the world your ancestors likely lived 10 to 20 generations in the past. Many of us have some idea of the countries from which our immigrant ancestors arrived in America, but if you are adopted, these tests provide an answer to the ubiquitous icebreaker question, “where are you from?” Even for individuals with a solid knowledge of their family history, these genetic ethnicity results can be enlightening and sometimes quite surprising. Most African Americans, for example, contain significant percentages of European ancestry, even if they don’t look like they do!
The second result is a list of individuals with whom you share long stretches of identical DNA. Your list of genetic matches constitutes the set of all your biological relatives who have also taken the same test. This list will include not only your closest relatives such as children and parents, but also more distant relatives such as fourth cousins (relatives with whom you share great-great-great-grandparents).
What never fails to surprise test takers (and us!) is the sheer number of genetic relatives these tests can reveal. A rough estimate from the AncestryDNA database of currently 500,000 customers shows that the average test taker is likely to find thousands of genetic relatives—with whom any genealogy buff (or novice) can connect to exchange stories, pictures, and insights about shared family.
And sometimes, among those thousands of relatives, is the one person who holds the key to discovering your biological family tree—as we share in the true story below.
In December 2012 an employee at Ancestry.com gave his adopted brother-in-law Lehan, now in his 60s, our DNA test to help him learn more about his roots.
More recently, another Ancestry.com employee was describing the test to a potential investor and suggested he take the test to experience it. He did, and when his test results came back he was surprised to discover he was related to Lehan through a grandfather or great-grandfather. He did not recognize Lehan and when he shared the results with his father Greg, Greg was inspired to take the test as well. Greg’s results indicated that Lehan was a possible first cousin, and so he sent him a message.
In May of 2014 (less than two years after taking his own test), Lehan received that letter from Greg. They eventually confirmed that they were half-brothers. While Greg’s father was Lehan’s father as well, Lehan’s birth mother was in her early 20s when she was pregnant with Lehan and had not informed Lehan’s father. Within days of Greg’s letter, Lehan discovered he had a half-brother and half-sister that he had never met.
Unfortunately, both Lehan’s biological parents have since passed away. But instead, Lehan has now connected with his half-siblings Greg and Carole, and their families—and has said that he’s had the most heartwarming embrace from his new brother, sister and their kids. According to Lehan, this has opened a new chapter in his life—and it is a most welcome “life interruption.” They will be meeting in person in December 2014.
For adopted individuals like Lehan, genetics often provides the only way to begin learning more about our biological families. But even for those of us who know more of our genealogy, DNA testing still has something to tell each of us about the fascinating story of our biological origins.
Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at firstname.lastname@example.org.