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Ökologix. About a month ago, in a fit of curiosity and productivity, I sent off my sample of spit to the 23andMe labs.

And a couple weeks ago, I got the results back.

A few years ago I did some digging into my genealogy and discovered some fascinating information about my family, as far back as the Normans in 990 AD.

Still, I was curious to see what my genes actually had to say.

What my genealogical research suggested was that my ancestors came mainly from England and Germany, though there are peripheral relatives to whom I don’t have access.

So it was no surprise to learn that the majority of my ancestry is European.

The intriguing piece is where the sub-Saharan African DNA came from!

My ancestry timeline in the report posits that it was introduced by someone who was 100% West African sometime in the mid 18th or early 19th century, so I am truly fascinated by whatever story there is there.

The breakdown of my European ancestry was more nuanced.

The blurb with this chart adds: “Genetically and geographically the French and Germans are at the heart of Europe.” The results don’t break down for French and German, but I do know that there’s quite a bit of German on my father’s side.

It’s important to observe that national identity and ethnic heritage are two different things, just as family identity and genetic match might not overlap.

Seeing this breakdown of my ancestry adds more data points to my story than it does shake any sense of identity that I’d built. My ancestors came from northwestern Europe. My paternal grandfather is Hungarian, and my genome suggests I have other ancestors from that part of the world.

My family is apparently well traveled!

I liked this bit from the explanation of “Broadly European.”

To me, this illustrates how interconnected we are, and how our planet and its climate over time have shaped our history.


The report also goes into some genetic traits I have, such as the variant rs4481887, which allows me to detect the asparagus metabolite in my urine!

I am also apparently less likely to taste certain bitter compounds, and more likely to prefer salty over savory. Both are true of me.

The report also correctly predicted that I do not have a cleft chin, cheek dimples, no unibrow, and no widow’s peak; and that I do have darker-colored eyes and detached ear lobes.

Interestingly, it predicted that I am likely to have darker colored hair, which I do now—although I used to have copper red hair when I was younger.

I also do not appear to have the gene for hair loss, which correlates with the fact that my maternal grandfather still has a full head of hair.

Yay!

There are other random things confirmed in the report:

  • My ring finger is indeed longer than my index finger
  • I don’t have many freckles
  • I have no back hair
  • Very fair skin
  • Straight hair (not curly or wavy)
  • I don’t sneeze when exposed to direct sunlight (the photic sneeze response)

There were also some wellness traits, such as my likelihood to an average weight and be lactose tolerant. I’m also less likely to be a deep sleeper (thanks to my ADA gene producing an enzyme called adenosine deaminase, which at higher levels can cause a person to stay awake longer) or move much in my sleep, both of which are very true.

I also do not have a gene for the alcohol flush reaction, meaning that my face does not turn red when I drink alcohol, and I do not experience unpleasant symptoms after drinking and can break down alcohol into a harmless substance.

Apparently I have my East Asian ancestors to thank for that.

I also carry a gene (CYP1A2) that contains instructions for an enzyme that allows me to break down 95% of the caffeine I consume, meaning it doesn’t affect me as strongly as it does other people.

So my heavy coffee-drinking habit is genetic after all!


One of the things I was slightly worried about was whether I carried a gene for late-onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and thankfully I do not have either.

There were a ton of other conditions such as Gaucher Disease, hereditary fructose intolerance, and something called Maple Syrup Urine Disease for which I also do not have markers—at least for the variants they tested.

Overall, I appear to come from pretty good genetic stock, health wise. Sure, mental health issues appear to run in my family, but I seem to be made of pretty strong stuff.

My genetic muscle composition is also apparently common in elite power athletes. My particular variant is associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning I’m more likely to be a sprinter than a long-distance runner.


The most intriguing finding was that I have 327 Neanderthal variants in my genome.

We don’t know much about the Neanderthals. They went extinct c. 40,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence suggests they buried their dead, cared for their sick and elderly, crafted tools, built shelters, lived in close family groups, and (based on hyoid bones found in their remains) may have even had a language that incorporated singing¹.

Their physiology was hardy and adapted for life in northern Europe during the last Ice Age, their shorter, stockier stature being likely efficient at consolidating heat. There is evidence from our DNA that there was a period of ≈10,000 years when they interbred with modern humans.

What I am taking from this is that my genome is rich with history, that I may have inherited the hardiness of my Neanderthal forebears, and that at least some of my ancestors were not afraid of those who were different from them.

My Christian upbringing discouraged mingling with (or dating/marrying) anyone who didn’t believe what we did, yet here I am—a gay, liberal atheist.

Plus, it appears I’m made of strong stuff. What I’ve been through so far hasn’t broken me.

I’m heartier than I think.


References:

¹ Steven J. Mithen, The singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind, and body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

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Bayeau FragmentSorry it’s been a while. My nonfiction writing class started at the end of January and that’s been pretty writing, as well as emotionally, intensive. The focus of the class is on personal narrative, so (naturally) I’m writing about the experience of coming out gay and during the process of that losing my Christian faith as well. Coupled with therapy, it’s dredging up a lot of memories – some good, some painful – but already I’ve experienced quite a bit of healing. It’s going to take some time still, and it’s odd becoming your own archivist, but it’s a fascinating experience.

I’ve also been digging into my family tree the past couple of weeks and have made some really fascinating discoveries that are crying out for further investigation. (This has the strong likelihood of becoming another book after the one about my dual coming out story.) I’m contemplating a trip to England just to do some digging and maybe even find some original genealogical records.

The past couple of years I’ve attempted to trace my 3rd great grandfather, John Miller (or Mueller), my great grandmother’s grandfather. It appears that he arrived in Baltimore, Maryland at the age of 18 on June 5, 1850 with his brother (whose name I haven’t been able to uncover – yet). He embarked from Bremen, Germany about six weeks earlier on the passenger ship Adolphine. According to records from the 1850 census, he lived in Ward 5 of Baltimore, Maryland with the Wigar family. That’s where the trail runs cold.

My third great grandmother Mary Barbara Giessler (or Geissler) arrived in Baltimore, Maryland in November of 1854 on the passenger ship Minerva. She was born on September 3, 1829 in Bretzfeld, a town in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. She was 25 years old when she first set foot in the United States. I’m still not sure when or where they were married.

That’s as far as I’ve been able to go with the Millers (my great grandmother’s maiden name). So last week I decided instead to trace the Norris clan, which is my great grandfather’s name. That tree was actually much easier to trace. (I’m starting with Ancestry.com. Yes, I know it’s owned by the Mormons, but who better to start with than people who have a genealogy fetish?)

The first interesting discovery was that my 8th great grandmother, Mary Norris (b. Jun 1, 1689), was murdered on Feb 1, 1760 by Cherokee Indians in an event known as the Long Cane Massacre in South Carolina. She was 71 years old when she died. All of the adults were slaughtered, and two girls were carried off, one of whom was rescued years later (think John Ford’s The Searchers).

Thomas James, librarian

Thomas James, first librarian of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Second interesting discovery was that my 15th grand uncle, Thomas James (c. 1573 – 1629), was the first librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He began his appointed duties on November 8, 1602.

As close as I can tell, the first of my grandparents to come to what was then the American Colonies was Thomas Edward Norris (1608 – 1675). He was born in Congham, England, and arrived in the Colonies in the early 1630s. There are apparently a number of interesting stories about him, some of which may be true. The gist is that he ran away from home around age 10 or 11, went to sea as a sailor, and landed in Nansemond County in Virginia around 1630 or 1631. (By the math, Thomas was at sea for about twelve years! What a badass!) He married his wife, Ann Hynson, in 1637. Curiously, their seventh child, Cuthbert, drowned at sea near Sulawesi, Tengah, Indonesia in 1668 at the age of 23. Fortunately, Thomas’ eldest son Thomas Jr. (1608 – 1675) survived long enough to spawn my 9th great grandfather, John Norris (1672-1752), along with 10 other children by two (consecutive) wives.

Note that all of these dates so far are pre-Revolutionary War! Most of my relatives were probably Loyalists to the Crown.

SirThomasFlemingNext interesting fact I discovered is that Thomas Fleming, husband of my 15th great grand aunt, Mary Fleming (née James) (1554-1614), was a judge in the trial of Guy Fawkes. Yes. Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot. Mary’s grandmother was my 17th great grandfather Thomas James’ wife Alice Porter (1502-1547), the daughter of Dr. Mark James, who was personal physician to…

Elizabeth I.

QUEEN. ELIZABETH. THE FIRST.

The Virgin Queen. Gloriana. Bess. The Faerie Queen.

After that I kept expecting to hit a dead end, but the branches just kept going up. Starting from my first true English ancestor, Thomas Norris (10th great grandfather), the line continued. Geoffrey Norris (1559-1609), John Norris (1528-1572), and then to where the story starts to get more interesting, Geoffrey Noreys (1490-1572). Noreys is an earlier spelling of Norris, which we will see the origin of in a moment.

His father was Robert Noreys (1460-1572)… and then we enter the very confusing period of Everyone And His Father Is Literally Named Geoffrey. (No joke.) The interesting thing is that after 19th great grandfather Geoffrey, the surname went from “le Norreys” to just “Norey” or “Norrey.” This was around the middle of the 14th century. Plague time in England.

Skip several generations to a guy named William de Noers, which is where the story keeps getting interesting.

William de Noers was a steward to William the Conqueror. He fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and apparently for his loyalty was granted thirty-three manors along with lands in the areas which became known as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk, making him a tenant-in-chief. His name was important enough to record in the Domesday Book of 1086, where his surname is spelled “de Noyers.” The book tells us he had charge of lands in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Buckinghamshire for the King that had once belonged to Archbishop Stigand of Cantebury.

William’s father was Sir Gilbert de Noers (990-c.1024), a Norman knight and Baron of Missenden in what is now Buckinghamshire. Gilbert was born in Normandy, in the northern part of France (Norris means “man from the North”).

Here I thought my family was boring…