As a mid-life gift to myself, I had my DNA tested by 23 and Me, one of several companies that give you personalized genetic reports in exchange for your money, saliva, and the privilege of using your DNA in scientific research. I found out that I’m short and freckled (wow… so that’s what those spots are…), and my blood may clot a little too easily, a useful trait if my arm should be hacked off in battle, but not so adaptive in this age of global air travel.
I also discovered that I am genetically 2.8 per cent Neanderthal. Joke you may but that is a fairly average amount for someone of non-African ancestry. Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and many East Asians and indigenous North and South Americans have sizable amounts of ancient Denisovan genetic material as well. This is so cool! If you are not a sub-Saharan African person, you probably are carrying around genes of other hominid species who lived and died out millennia ago. Depending on your background, when you see an artist’s conception of a Neanderthal’s head based on excavated skull and facial bones, you may be looking at an image of your long-ago grandparent. Palaeontologists might be studying the skeletal remains from the cave cemetery of your prehistoric Denisovan family.
Moving ahead forty thousand years, my 23 and Me heritage results confirmed family lore. I have had a long fascination with First Nations culture, myth, and spirituality and I was hoping that 23 and Me would give me genetic permission, by revealing a sequence or two of indigenous genes, to adopt some of the spiritual practices of the Ojibwe people of my Great Lakes homeland. Instead, the test corroborated my family’s paper history; my ancestors came to Ontario as opportunistic land thieves. They were Swiss Mennonites fleeing persecution, landless Scots, and hungry Protestant Irish.
I thought about my attraction to First Nations’ cultures. I admire indigenous Great Lakes spirituality for the way it connects people to each other as well as non-human beings in the realms of earth, sky, and water. A familial respect is accorded to every spirit in the ecological community. In contrast, Christianity is weak on these points. I also reflected on my one dimensional view of my ancestors as robbers of First Nations’ land. They were that, but they were also peaceable, hardworking farmers who craved simple meals and safety.
Ultimately, doing the 23 and Me test was part of my process of rejecting Christianity once and for all. I began to see Christianity as a dysfunctional, authoritarian religion that medieval power brokers foisted upon illiterate peasants who had been getting along quite nicely as Pagans. I could not in good conscience appropriate Great Lakes indigenous spirituality but I could explore pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic spirituality. I looked to northern European aboriginal traditions and their modern adaptations for spiritual sustenance.
I learned about the Wheel of the Year, Celtic and Germanic mythology, and Naturalistic Paganism. Based on my reading, I cobbled together a framework for honouring all of our ancestors, celebrating seasonal rhythms, and connecting to my ecological and social environment. Transferring pre-Christian northern European spiritual practices to rural Ontario has been quite natural due to the climatic, geographic, agricultural, and ecological similarity between the two places. Yule has more meaning to me than Christmas did.
DNA testing is not for the faint of heart. The 23 and Me relative finder blew the door off of one closet in my family, and we have welcomed a new cousin into the clan. The genetic health reports require a rudimentary knowledge of genetics and human biology and the information they contain can be life changing. I’ve had to come to terms with the confirmation of my short stature, but others might discover predispositions to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other dreadful diseases. However, if you want to know more about your heritage, your family, and your health, a DNA test is an obvious starting point.
Two years after testing, I still visit the 23 and Me community website regularly, and read about other people’s experiences with DNA testing. Adoptees find families. People who didn’t know their grandparents discover their genetic heritage. Sick people receive support and information. In other words, when people learn about their DNA, they may feel a little special, but they also strengthen their ties to our great big 7 billion member human family. Each and every one of us is the child of sturdy people who survived plagues, war, bad hair days, and myriad calamities. Our ancestors, royal and pauper, had a 100 per cent success rate in the game of life. We face the future with our illustrious, amazing, inherited DNA.
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”
(Editor’s note – learning about Ancestors through DNA testing is a big part of my spirituality, and I have some resources on doing so, and tons of data – including actual Denisovan and other ancient DNA. If there is interest, leave a comment, and I could post about the spiritual power of DNA testing.)