Every family has its stories. We just don’t know them all. That’s where genealogy comes in. Through census and military records, notes in family bibles, or conversations with older relatives we can recover some of those family histories. But where memories and traditional paper records fail, we now have a new genealogical tool – our own DNA. The stories in PBS’ series “Finding Your Roots” illustrate the power of genetic genealogy and the use of DNA to solve family mysteries and uncover hidden stories.
23andMe’s Senior Director of Research, Joanna Mountain, is a geneticist who worked as a consultant on the series and was interviewed for a few of the episodes. Mountain, who completed her Ph.D. in Genetics at Stanford University, is also a guest blogger for the series. Her post below first appeared on the Finding Your Roots program page. We’re republishing it here with the permission of PBS.
I’m a scientist. Mysteries and puzzles have always captivated me. For years I studied the fascinating riddle of human genetic diversity, working both at Stanford University and at the University of California, Berkeley to reconstruct human prehistory using DNA.I knew the power of DNA to help us understand some of the most fundamental questions of human evolution, but it wasn’t until I applied the same science to my own family’s DNA that I saw how powerful it could be personally.My own genealogical research started with a brownish-yellow, folded sheet of paper that was handed down to my father from his father. That piece of paper traced the history of the Mountain family back to 1755, just before a 5th great grandfather of mine changed his name from Mounton to Mountain. I was fascinated by how many children my ancestors had, and by how they kept reusing the same first names through the generations. I wondered who had made the effort to record, in such neat handwriting, all the names, birthdays, birthplaces and marriages. This faded piece of paper lent such importance to our family’s surname. We are The Mountains!At the same time, as a professor of anthropological genetics at Stanford University, I was studying the ancestral lineages of people all over the world through DNA. I spent over 15 years studying the DNA of people in Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Italy, and many other far away places. My own use of genetic genealogy had to wait. It was only in 2007, when I began working for the personal genomics company, 23andMe, that I was able to turn my fascination with genetic variation to my own family. Now 15 of my family members and about two dozen of my husband’s family members have been tested. 23andMe, Inc.