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So even if they can't prove that you are a direct descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte, they could tell you that you and he had an ancestor in common at some point. Greenspan warns that this distinction is often misunderstood. "It's real important that people understand what DNA testing can't do. For example, say you and another Lomax man who you'd never met come up as an exact match; we cannot ever tell you that the two of you's oldest known ancestors were brothers or first cousins. What it will tell you conclusively is if they come from a common male ancestor at some point in time."
Greenspan also warns about companies that claim to be able to detect too much using too little. One such, he says, is African Ancestry, which was founded by Rick Kittles, a co-director of Molecular Genetics at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts used Kittles's tests to determine that his father's ancestors were Songhai from Niger and his mother's Mende from Sierra Leone. "Knowing that gave me a gladness that's hard to articulate," wrote Pitts at the time. "Like finding the jigsaw's missing piece. I felt a quiet joy. It made me want to know more. Made me want to go there."
Greenspan is skeptical of Kittles's findings, in this and many other cases. "I think the only scientist who says you can use as few markers as Kittles uses and be able to predict somebody back to a tribal level is Dr. Kittles," Greenspan says. "In other words, I don't think it's been independently verified. If you talk to Native American experts in this country, they'll tell you that with our mtDNA test they could put somebody back to a region of a country -- like the southeastern U.S. -- and that's hundreds of thousands of square miles you're looking at right there. And Kittles is trying to tell people that they can put you back to a single tribe out of hundreds. That may be a little bit overselling. Maybe they can do that, but you're not gonna see another scientist saying, 'Oh, that clearly works, and we're absolutely confident in it.' As for me, I think it's prudent to undersell and overdeliver."
But if Kittles is in fact selling too much sizzle with his steaks, it points out what a great opportunity this would be for someone to prey on the vulnerable. Because of the manner in which they were systematically stripped of their heritage, black Americans would be vulnerable to someone who says he can crack open the lockbox of the past. And in some ways, this field has the potential to become something like the opposite of the fortune-telling racket, the difference being that these shady operators would peddle you a bogus past rather than a fake future.
"I think Abe Lincoln answered that question best," Greenspan says. "I don't feel that any of us who test are providing inaccurate data, but the interpretation is sometimes fast and loose. That is why I would only buy from a company that is supported by a reputable university science team."
But when interpreted with scientific rigor, genetic genealogy can bring hard science to genealogy's imprecise and, at times, incorrect methods. FTDNA and companies like it have the potential to revolutionize genealogy. In fact, the company brands its stock-in-trade as "anthrogenealogy," which it defines as "the science of genealogy by genetics; especially: utilizing molecular biology to trace a lineage beyond the limits of historical records."
Greenspan says his company's services help give genealogy -- a soft science, at best -- a much firmer footing in hard science. "Because there's evidence, and there's a preponderance of evidence," he says.
FTDNA also can answer the ultimate genealogical poser: If you're a male, and thus the owner of a Y chromosome, it literally can tell you where your ancestors were in prehistoric times. (Women who want to test can find out their haplogroup by testing their mitochondrial DNA; if they want to test their male ancestry, they have to persuade a male relative to take the test.) "I can tell that your deep ancestry comes from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, whether his father's father's father was African, or a Semite," says Greenspan. "In other words, I can tell if someone is descended from the Neolithic farmers who came to Europe 9,500 years ago, or I can tell someone that in all probability they are a -- how can I put this -- an ethnic Jew."
Which brings up another potential dark side. During the holocaust, Hitler relied on traditional genealogy to dispatch millions to the death camps. One Jewish grandparent was all it took. A modern-day Hitler would have much more sophisticated tools at his disposal. Greenspan -- who is Jewish himself -- doesn't dispute it. "The fact of the matter is, anything that has power can cut both ways," he says. "And this is powerful. If there was some tyrannical maniac who came along and said, 'I'm gonna kill everyone who has Viking ancestry,' then I think the technology in general would be dangerous. I don't know how you could put the genie back in the bottle on this."