Years ago, as soon as genetic testing became widely available, I had a mitochondrial DNA test done, which traced my lineage on my mother's side. I was so anxious to know where I came from, that I practically wore off the skin on the inside of my mouth from rubbing the cotton swab so hard. When the results came back, I found out when my earliest ancestors left Africa, and the probable route they took to arrive in Europe. I also found that I had a genetic match with Otzi the Iceman--you know, Europe's oldest-known natural human mummy.
Something about the Otzi connection intrigued me. He died more than 5,000 years ago, and intense scientific study of my mummified ancestor revealed that he ate well before he died: herb bread and chamois meat and red deer. He had been sick twice over the six months before he died, and his body bore more than 61 tattoos. Some of them, or maybe all of them, may have been a form of prehistoric acupuncture used for medical treatment. Was that mainstream or alternative medicine at the time?
Otzi had an interesting look--in a prehistoric, hairy sort of way. In any case, he dressed well: leggings, a woven grass cloak, waterproof shoes, and sort of sox made from grass. Over a period of time before he died, he had eaten ibex, legumes, wheat, and a pretty healthy diet. He also had gut problems, and, I heard, he was lactose intolerant.
When I got my results, it was not an easy period in my life. But instead of thinking about that, I focused on my early ancestors who walked from Africa to Europe. I tried to imagine if climate changes has forced them to undertake the long trek. Or was it curiosity? Were they travelers like I am? Were they in search of food? Did some of them become hunters? Farmers? Were they artistic? Smart? Emotionally well-balanced?
I told all my friends about my famous relative who was found frozen. My husband started joking that he was keeping me away from the freezer compartments when we went shopping. I felt connected to Otzi, across five millennia.
And then more information came in. I started getting notified of genetic matches, and an astounding three of them live in my small hometown. We immediately started calling each other "cuz." It is now many years later, and we still have a special feeling that we are kin.
My only regret was that there are no living males in my family who could trace my lineage through my father's side. But that all changed recently with the introduction of autosomal DNA tests. They can, miracle of miracles, test both the maternal and paternal sides of you. I chose the company MyHeritage.com, talked my husband into doing the test, sent in my sample, and waited about a month.
About a week ago, I was on a remote island in Tahiti and an email came with my test results from MyHeritage.com I eagerly scrolled down and found out where my DNA had been hanging out for the last eight to ten generations. Ashkenazi Jewish was not a surprise. But Sefardi, North African, and Central Asian (probably, Iran, Iraq, Yemen) were. All of these were places that I had been drawn to for many years. I spent years of my life in North Africa--in Tunisia and Morocco! I wrote extensively about Sefardim, and went to Iran as soon as I could get a passport. I always said that when I was in those places I felt at home. The people never felt "other" to me.
My husband was delighted to discover that he had a chunk of Spanish in him. He's started calling himself Pablo. It enlarges both of our worlds. And a few days ago I got an email with information about folks who are my cousins, once or twice or thrice removed.
MyHeritage has 91 million users, 40 million family trees, and covers 42 ethnicities. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to build their family trees. To connect. To bond. To find commonality over the last few hundred years. In a world where people feel so disconnected, so isolated, it's wonderful to have your feeling of belonging expand and to have, if you wish, the opportunity to connect to unknown relatives. Maybe you'll meet one day. Or talk on the phone. Or email. Or plan a visit to each others' hometowns or countries. Or fall in love if they are removed enough.
DNA tests used to be expensive. As I write this, MYHeritage has a special offer --$59 (www.MyheritageDNA.com). Can you afford not to do it?
And maybe, sometime in the near or far future, autosomal tests will go all the way back to Africa, and then I'll know the deep origins of my female and male lineage. I'm waiting.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer, author, speaker, workshop leader. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us