Genetic Genealogy, Historic Figures and Your DNA
The world of genealogy is filled with family history stories connecting us to famous ancestors. After all, who wouldn’t want to include a celebrated historical figure in their family tree?
What if DNA testing could add fact to family fiction?
Recently I ran across a few websites that offered DNA testing for the purpose of matching clients DNA to that of famous historical figures. While I understand the allure of such testing, I have to admit that the skeptic in me was rather doubtful.
Among the historical figures listed were:
- King Tut
- Napolean Bonaparte
- Marie Antoinette
- Jesse James
- Genghis Khan
- Zar Nicholas Romanov
- Sven II Estridsen (Viking King of Denmark)
- Luke the Evangelist
- Petrarca (Italian Poet)
- Thomas Jefferson – Sally Hemmings
How it Works
In the case of some of the notables listed above, DNA samples have been gathered through various methods.
For instance, Marie Antoinette’s DNA was extracted from a lock of her hair and remains of one of her children. Jesse James DNA came from hair and bone fragments collected after an exhumation of his body. The DNA samples used for comparing DNA profiles with Napolean Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson came from known descendants of these legendary figures.
So, how can they tell if you are a descendant of Genghis Khan, or ancient Irish and Scottish kings? The process of determining this comes from testing (on a very broad scale) to determine matches – or at the least – strong associations among DNA signatures and surnames. For example in the case of ancient Irish king, Nial of the Nine Hostages, geneticists studied 17 STR markers on the Y-chromosomes of a broad selection of Irish men. What they found was a connection between the DNA signature and several surnames.
Using DNA to establish your relationship to a famous historical figure works best in a controlled setting such as a one-name study. A good example of this is a study that already has a sample of DNA belonging to someone with a solid paper trail…AKA…a known descendant.
While these sites claim that they can match clients with historical figures, in most cases, they can only determine the likelihood of a relationship or tell if you share a common ancestor. The truth is that while genetic genealogy is a great tool…you will also need to do things the old-fashioned way and establish a paper trail.