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A Case of Mistaken Ancestry

Customer finds DNA test isn't very scientific

Following the instructions, said Long, Hirata — whose parents were born in the United States — must have checked "New World" and got a screwy result.

Long also explained that his company had a policy of not providing refunds for completed tests, but that in this case he would make an exception. He agreed to a redo of Hirata's scan and a full refund.

That would have been the end of the story, but then we learned from Hirata that she never filled out the confusing form. Turns out that GTL sent her an outdated form that doesn't ask the Old World/New World question.

So what could have been a scam turned out to be just a case of poor customer service — the wrong paperwork and no follow-up on Hirata's complaint.

As promised, GTL did the scan again; Hirata received her revised results 10 days later.

"According to the new data," Hirata wrote, "I am all Asian." She wonders, however, whether her complaint tainted the results. "I may still do the test with another company," she said.

Good luck on that. As medical anthropologist Sandra Lee of Stanford University told me, "Proving parenthood is relatively simple. You get half of your DNA from each parent. That same equation makes it very difficult to prove deep lineage. You get only half of the DNA from each generation.  After three generations, that's a half of a half of a half. You might not be carrying any identifiable DNA from any one specific ancestor."

In other words, even if you pick a good DNA lab with a good reputation, you can easily spend your money, take the test and still be no closer to knowing whether your great-granddad was Harry, Henri or Hiroshi. Lee recommends that, given the current state of DNA science, family stories and public records are still the best tools for tracking ancestry.

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.

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