"We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies."
- Shirley Abbott
Why do people search for their family origin? For a variety of reasons: to get to know their ancestors, to learn more about their surname, and to feel a connection with history. Now modern science and technology is making it possible to learn about another aspect of family origin: genetics.
The use of genetic genealogy to trace family origin is a rapidly expanding field. The National Geographic Society's Genographic Project is a gene-mapping project that collects and analyzes DNA to learn more about human migrations. The DNA Clans Genetic Ancestry Analysis measure's genetic connections to indigenous ethnic groups. Some use genetic genealogy technology to learn more about their own genetic makeup and what the consequences of that will be. Inherited conditions like Parkinson's disease, Hodgkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and Alzheimer's disease can all be studied using genetic genealogy.
The use of genetic genealogy technology to learn more about one's family origin is controversial because of issues of privacy and issues of ancestral identity. One of the most well-known cases of family origin controversy is the argument over the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings connection. In 1802, journalist James T. Callender alleged that Jefferson had been intimately involved with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and had fathered one or more of her children. Opponents argue that this was merely an attempt to lambaste Jefferson and damage his credibility by attacking his family and personal life. As Mark Twain said, "Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you."
Genetic testing done in 1998 established that an individual with the Jefferson Y-chromosome was the father of Eston Hemings, Sally's son. However, there were more than two dozen adult Jefferson men carrying this chromosome in Virginia at the time. A 2001 study concluded that Jefferson's brother Randolph likely fathered Sally's children. Jefferson's grandchildren asserted that the father of Sally's children was either Jefferson's nephew Peter Carr or Peter's brother Samuel. Until more sophisticated genetic genealogy technology is developed, and more decisive testing can be done, the issue may never rest.
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