The Neanderthal in Me

Neanderthal image from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Neanderthal image from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

I figure a birthday is a perfect excuse to discover more about myself, so I sent my spit in the mail to 23andMe, a company that tests DNA. Each person’s DNA contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, thus the company’s name. And if you order one DNA test kit, you can get additional kits at a discount, so I requested one for my son, too.

Although several companies provide personal DNA testing, I’ve been watching this company for a while. They first came to my attention when I worked for a major medical center and one of the founders gave a presentation there. Back then, their DNA test cost too much for me: $500. But now the price is only around $100.

The doctors at this major medical center (which shall remain nameless) expressed concern that 23andMe was providing medical genetics results but no genetics counseling. They thought it was irresponsible to give people possibly alarming information without giving them a means to interpret it.

Turns out, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration thought the same thing in 2013, prompting the company to no longer provide medical results. Instead, they have limited their offerings to ancestry DNA and, as an exciting added bonus, you can discover if you have any Neanderthal DNA lurking in your family tree. If you wish to share your information with others who have used the service, there’s also the chance you could find relatives you didn’t know you had. And you can participate in research surveys.

So my son and I sent our saliva samples off. The company said it could take six weeks for results, but we started receiving ours in about two weeks. I’m still waiting for the final round of info, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • I have more Neanderthal DNA in me than 66% of the population. Most people of European descent have a smidgeon of Neanderthal DNA, a relic of when our ancestors migrated out of Africa and mixed with the Neanderthals living on what eventually became the European Continent. My son has more caveman DNA than 98% of the rest of the population. Hmmm, what does that say about my ex? (Smirk.) And if you’re really enthused about your inner Neanderthal, you can buy a T-shirt on the company’s website proclaiming your Neanderthal DNA percentage.
  • There were rumors of Native American blood on my mom’s side of the family, and this test confirmed it. There’s not as much Native American DNA in my genes as we thought, but it’s fun to know that its there. There’s even a tinier bit of Middle Eastern DNA in me.
  • The biggest chunk of my ancestry is from English/Irish/Scottish stock. This must be why I feel I have a Gaelic soul (see previous blog post about this). The next largest chunk is German/French. A tiny bit of Scandinavian rounds it out.
  • Singer/author Jimmy Buffet (who is Wastin’ Away Again in Margaritaville) is a distant relative on my mom’s side. I hear he has a thing for islands. I am an isle-o-phile, too. Maybe it’s in our genes. (I also like margaritas!)

As I am a bit of a science nerd, this was all very fun to learn.  I hope that someday the company will be able to provide medical DNA results again. I gave them permission to store my sample in hopes that they can test it later for this purpose.

Yes, it is rather scary that this company now has genetic information on gobs of people, and although customers can sign off on how much of that info they are willing to share, in the end, the company has it and could do whatever they wanted, I guess. In my case, curiosity won out over paranoia.

Mother’s Day is coming up. Maybe dear old mom would like to embrace her inner Neanderthal?

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5 thoughts on “The Neanderthal in Me

  1. BRILLIANT! How awfully right the (smirk) part seems and how pejorative of the powers-that-be to think we are too lame to handle the raw truth about ourselves.

    • Well, it didn’t help that 23andMe pissed off the FDA, either. And I wonder if there was some commercial aspects (i.e., someone was losing money because of 23andMe’s testing?) behind the limitation. There are articles about it on the interweb to read if you’re interested.

  2. Marie, this is very interesting, all the more so because I watched a PBS DVD “Decoding Neanderthals” not too long ago. They tested a group of students and gave them their Neanderthal results like you had done. The overriding point was the Neanderthals were more advanced than generally given credit for, in terms of tools and language. (You may already know this but it was new to me.)

  3. P.S. If anyone would like to read a fun fiction book about Neanderthals, the author John Darnton wrote the appropriately titled book “Neanderthal.” I read it a few years back and it made my bookshelf of “keeper” books.

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