I recently received an e-mail from a cousin of mine out on Long Island—we’ll call him Harry—who was writing to invite me to a family reunion. It was an offer I couldn’t resist, even though, as family reunions go, this one is a bit unusual. For one thing, Harry and I have never met. I didn’t even know he existed before he e-mailed me. In fact, though I know for certain that he and I are related, I don’t know exactly how. Neither does he. For that matter, the entire family gathering is composed of people who know we are related, but little else. The guest list isn’t set—actually, it’s growing all the time—but that’s okay, because we don’t have to rent a space, or figure out how much potato salad to make. This reunion, you see, is happening online. It’s virtual. And perpetual.
See also: What's Your Family Story?
Welcome to the astonishing, edifying, and sometimes perplexing world of tracing your roots using DNA. Just swab the inside of your cheek and you can learn some amazing and even life-changing things about yourself and your family—even if they’re not the things you were hoping to learn. You could learn that you are descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron, for instance. Or maybe Genghis Khan.
So how did I, a guy who had to wax the teacher’s car just to pass high-school biology, get into something like this? Well, I always wanted to have a large extended family. An armchair psychologist would probably tell you that this led to a longing for a sense of community, and that this in turn led to an interest in genealogy. For years I hoped that some relative would just present me with an enormous, elaborate family tree. Sadly, no one did. So I started working on one myself. I made some exciting discoveries at first, but then I had the quintessential genealogy experience—I hit a wall.
I started hearing sensational stories about DNA tests: Norwegians who discovered they were really Chinese, for example.
It’s inevitable: Everyone who sets out in search of roots will come to a point where he or she just cannot track down that next great-great-grand-somebody-or-other. My wall was the Atlantic Ocean. I was able to track down lots and lots of ancestors in America; in Europe, not so much. Those forebears’ birth, marriage, and death records may have existed once, but in the course of two world wars, the Russian Revolution, and seven decades of communism, they seem to have been misplaced.
Frustrated, I posted some questions on genealogy websites, in the hope that some distant cousin might read them. No such luck. My questions are still sitting up there, sad and unanswered. But technology had other things in store. At the same time the Internet was blossoming, tremendous strides were also being made in the field of genetics. One day a man—a genealogist who had run up against his own wall—hit upon the notion of marrying the Internet with genetic science, and in doing so transformed genealogy, and the very notion of family, forever.
A few years ago, I started hearing sensational tales of people who took DNA tests and made astonishing discoveries about their backgrounds—white people who discovered black ancestors, black people who discovered Native American ancestors, Norwegians who discovered they were really Chinese, and so on. Getting nowhere online, I thought I should look into this DNA thing. So I found a testing company, sent off for a kit, swabbed the insides of my cheeks for cells, sent the samples back, and waited for the results.
That company is called Family Tree DNA; its founder, Bennett Greenspan, is the man I mentioned above, the one who first launched a commercial venture combining the Internet with genetics. Greenspan, who lives in Houston, had been a hard-core genealogist since he was a teenager in the 1960s. By the spring of 1999, though, it seemed as if he’d reached the end of the line. The problem was his mother’s mother’s father, about whom he couldn’t find much more than a surname, Nitz. “So I entered the name into a database at a genealogical website,” he says, “and found someone looking for that same name who was in Buenos Aires.” They compared notes and found striking parallels in their families. He couldn’t find a paper trail link, however. He knew they must be related—but how?