My ancestry adventure: When DNA testing delivers unexpected and unsettling results

While trying out three of the most popular services -- Ancestry, 23andMe, and Living DNA -- all I wanted to know was whether or not my Dad's family came from Russia. That simple question took me on a long, strange trip.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

In this article, I'm going to take an in-depth look at three of the most popular DNA testing services: Ancestry, 23andMe, and Living DNA. All three have interesting stories to tell. But first, I'll tell you mine.

I've been sitting on this review for almost a year. When I got the results back from Ancestry and 23andMe (Living DNA was different), I found them to be deeply troubling, opening wounds I thought I'd cauterized decades ago.

I wasn't sure how to proceed, especially when it came to explaining all this in a public forum. So I left this project on the back burner until I was ready to face it. 

Although I have talked about aspects of my life in thousands of articles, I've avoided discussion of my roots. Unfortunately, the results of my DNA tests require such a discussion. This is one of those cases where technology (DNA testing and big data) can slam hard into deeply personal issues, like religious identity and heritage.

I also want to point out that a comprehensive discussion of DNA testing must, by its very nature, include discussions of ethnicity, race, heritage, culture, and privacy. We've talked a lot here on ZDNet about DNA privacy, but comparatively little about ethnicity, heritage, and race. 

Strap in. This ride is gonna get bumpy.

Understanding race and ethnicity

How the US Government officially thinks about race and ethnicity has changed since most of us were kids. In fact, it officially changed on October 30, 1997.

On that day, the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs issued a formal decision entitled, "Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity."

Prior to this decision, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Directive No. 15, "Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting," as adopted on May 12, 1977, officially specified six races for the purposes of cataloging and legislative action: American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, and White. Ethnicity was defined solely as either "Hispanic origin" or "Not of Hispanic origin."

Back in those days, people of mixed race or who didn't fit one of these categories were instructed, whether in census reporting or other forms that collected racial information, to just pick the category that fit best.

As you might imagine, a six-sizes fits all policy doesn't really work in a melting pot nation of almost 350 million people. That's a big part of what the 1997 decision set out to fix.


In preparation for the 1997 decision, there was a tremendous amount of study and debate about how to classify multi-racial individuals. Many organizations advocated for a "multi-race" category, while others argued against it.

Eventually, the decision gave the following official instructions: "The method for respondents to report more than one race should take the form of multiple responses to a single question and not a 'multiracial' category." The decision further instructed, "Based on research conducted so far, two recommended forms for the instruction accompanying the multiple response question are 'Mark one or more ...' and 'Select one or more....'"

And you thought your UI design decisions had a lot of committee input! Read the full decision to get an idea of the research and debate that went into this one federal guideline.

But where the Standards of Classifications revisions really begins to impact our discussion of DNA is in the following guideline from the 1997 decision:

The racial and ethnic categories set forth in the standards should not be interpreted as being primarily biological or genetic in reference. Race and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry.

Respect for individual dignity should guide the processes and methods for collecting data on race and ethnicity; ideally, respondent self-identification should be facilitated to the greatest extent possible, recognizing that in some data collection systems observer identification is more practical.

In other words, the United States officially decoupled the issue of race from biology and assigned it to culture and history. These changes have since propagated into the documents of the one United States agency tasked with converting these very broad concepts into tangible numbers: the U.S. Census Bureau.

The training document "Race and Ethnicity" states, "The Census Bureau defines race as a person's self-identification with one or more social groups."

In another document, a government PowerPoint entitled "Clarifying Ancestry, Country of Birth," the Census Bureau defines "ancestry" as "a person's self-identification of the ethnic origin, descent, roots, heritage, or place of birth of the person or of the person's ancestors."

In both cases, the Census Bureau now uses a person's self-identification rather than, for example, DNA characteristics, to identify both race and ancestry.

This also tracks in modern academia. According to "Importance of race-ethnicity: An exploration of Asian, Black, Latino, and Multiracial adolescent identity" published in the April 2010 issue of the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, race and ethnicity are social constructs. The authors explore this concept in detail, summarizing the basic idea as:

Racial identity has been historically understood as relating to responses to racism and prejudice, while ethnic identity has included a sense of belonging to a group connected by heritage, values, traditions, and often languages, although both terms are acknowledged as socially constructed.

In the Khan Academy article "What is cultural heritage," Elena Franchi argues that "heritage" is "something that is inherited, passed down from previous generations."

In the case of "cultural heritage," Franchi clarifies, "the heritage doesn't consist of money or property, but of culture, values and traditions. Cultural heritage implies a shared bond, our belonging to a community." She continues, "It [cultural heritage] represents our history and our identity; our bond to the past, to our present, and the future."

So, after enormous thought and debate across a great many institutions, the prevailing academic and political view of race is that it is decoupled from biological identifiers and lives more in the self-identity of individuals. Ethnicity and culture are also concepts that exist within individuals and not necessarily biology or genetics.

But there are both visible and internal biological markers that are more common to one group of people than another. Some of these markers show up in DNA tests, and while it may not be appropriate to link those markers with self-identified race, it may be appropriate to link those markers with characteristics of a block of people who share certain attributes. We'll explore this later in terms of my DNA results.

But what about religion? Is religion cultural or biological?

Before we dive into my DNA results, we need to discuss one more fraught-laden topic: religion.

According to the 2016 Pew Research Center study entitled "One-in-five U.S. adults were raised in interfaith homes," adult religious identity is tightly linked to childhood religious upbringing. According to the study:

One pattern regarding the passing on of religious identity from one generation to the next is clear: Among those who were raised in a single religious background...the family's religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one's religion into adulthood.

This also tracks for those raised by parents without a religious affiliation. According to Pew, "Nearly two-thirds of people raised by two religious 'nones' (63%) are also religiously unaffiliated today."

For those who were raised in mixed religion households, the mother's religion was more likely to be the one adopted into adulthood.

Recently, there has been some research that shows how religious you are may come from your genes. According to research performed by Tim Spector is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London and a consultant physician at Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital, how intensely you believe not only comes from your upbringing, but from your actual genetic pattern.

In research with identical twins raised in separate households, his research showed, "Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50% genetic component to belief in God."

I was always taught that religion was cultural. It was a matter of belief systems, often passed down from parents to children. Although most of us are born into a religion by virtue of parentage, actually "being" in that religion wasn't necessarily something that had to do with biology.

That said, there are racial connections to religion, which are often related to upbringing and geographic region. For example, the Pew Religious Landscape Studyshowed that 91% of those who identified as Hindu identified Asian as their race, while 90% of those who identified as Jewish identified White as their race.

Pew Religious Landscape Study

Still, though, I never really thought there was a Catholic gene or a Jewish gene or a Hindu gene. I figured we were what we were and our religious heritage was spiritual alone. Apparently, I was wrong. This is where my disturbing DNA test results come in. And that brings us back to my story.

Curiosity about my heritage

My parents died a few years back. My dad died just four months after my mother passed away. At a very special Thanksgiving dinner at my house the day before my father went into the hospital for the last time, I had what would turn out to be the final opportunity to talk to him about our family history.

He was quite ill at the time and his memory was not what it used to be. We got to talking about heritage, where the family came from, and where his grandparents had been before they moved to America from the old country. The problem was I had previously been told that we were Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian on my dad's side. On this last Thanksgiving, he insisted that wasn't true: our heritage was solely Russian.

I tried to pin him down on whether he was referring to Russia as it had been in 1907 or the Russia we know today. He didn't know. The distinction didn't seem important to him at the time.

The Russia of his grandparents, if they were Russian, would have been the Russian Empire. That fell in 1917 and became the USSR. The USSR, in turn, fell in 1991 and split into Russia and the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

For whatever reason, the disconnect between what my father told me that Thanksgiving and what I had heard from various family members earlier in life continued to bother me for a few years. All my relatives of that generation had already passed away, so I no longer had access to any primary source of family history.

But perhaps DNA could tell me more about my family story. DNA tests were becoming more popular and promoted "precise geographic detail," as the ad below shows.


While the DNA tests claimed to be able to connect me with other relatives based on DNA matches, what I really wanted was the geographical information. My wife was also curious about her heritage, so we signed up for Ancestry DNA.

I subsequently wrote a number of articles about DNA tests for CNET and ZDNet:

Once those articles were published, PR folks from 23andMe and Living DNA reached out and offered me the chance to take DNA tests using their services. Since my wife has a very different heritage than me, the companies graciously offered to perform the tests on her DNA as well.

To say that the results I got back from Ancestry and 23andMe were shocking and upsetting would be an understatement. By contrast, the results I got back from Living DNA were fascinating. I'll end this document with some very interesting revelations from that report. But first, we need to discuss the painful bits.

Instead of "precise geographic detail," my DNA results from both Ancestry and 23andMe assigned my heritage to a religion and an area spanning two continents with with very little location precision. My wife, on the other hand, got back the geographic information we expected without being biologically pigeonholed into a religion.

My personal history

I was born to Jewish parents. And they were born to Jewish parents, and they were born to Jewish parents. I know this is going somewhat afield from big data and DNA, but it's important to understand DNA testing results in the context of stories like mine.

My story centers on the regular religious-related emotional abuse I was subjected to as a child over the course of a five year period from age 8 to 13.

My parents were never particularly introspective about their religion, but they believed in doing all the right things good Jewish parents do, which included sending their son to five years of Hebrew school and making sure I went through the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Hebrew school was an after school program that I attended three afternoons a week and on Saturdays, about 15 hours a week of attempted indoctrination.

The problem was, I had a questioning mind. I didn't believe. I think I was all of eight years old when the teacher told us the stories of Moses and the plagues. When it came to turning the Nile's water into blood, I had a problem ascribing it to an act of god.

After all, I had a chemistry set. I could turn water a red color by mixing phenolphthalein with sodium bicarbonate. Surely, if little eight year old me could do it with a kid's chemistry set, there had to be a more practical explanation than that some invisible magic man in the sky was the cause.

At the time, I was a good student. I asked the question respectfully. I really wanted to know. After all, in public school, we were taught to ask questions and explore answers. Shouldn't the same be true in Hebrew school?

Thus began a five year campaign of ritualized shaming where, in punishment for asking too many questions, I was regularly forced to stand in the hall as the rest of the students filed by and tormented me, behavior the teachers encouraged because they had been instructed by the school principal to make an example of me.

I wasn't shy about this. I complained to my parents. They did what good 1970s parents were supposed to do and met with the school administration. But when the rabbi told them the constant shaming and verbal abuse was for my own good, so I'd learn to behave like a good Jew, they accepted his word as a respected authority figure and sent me back into the toxic environment.

As you might imagine, after five years of this, by the time I graduated with my Bar Mitzvah (which I was forced to participate in), I had pretty much distanced myself emotionally from Judaism. I started as an eight year old with a questioning mind's skepticism about dogma, and ended up at thirteen with a strong disbelief.

Now, look. I don't blame the religion itself for this abuse. I know the actions of one group of teachers at one Jewish community center can't be extended to all the temples and synagogues across the world. Most Jews I've met are kind and well-meaning people. But after my experience compounded the disbelief I had to begin with, I just found it much easier to disconnect from all aspects of Judaism, both in terms of religion and culture (with the limited exception of the occasional pastrami sandwich).

Other than attending a few funerals, I've managed to avoid going into a synagogue since I was old enough to have the agency to stay away. I have not identified as Jewish since childhood.

I'm not alone. According to Gallup as reported by the BBC, more than 13% of the world's population strongly considers themselves to be non-believers, and 32% do not consider themselves religious. Those numbers are rising, by the way, which explains why religion is such a hot button in American politics.

My lack of religious and ethnic identification, which, as we've discussed, is supported in the policy of the United States as well as throughout academia, came smack up against science in the unexpected results of my DNA tests. And that brings us to the Ancestry and 23andMe results I'm about to share with you.

Oh, and before I tell you my DNA results from Ancestry and 23andMe, I'd like to ask you to stick around through this whole report. That's because the results from Living DNA were substantially different and led to some fascinating insights that were actually really cool, rather than painful. 

The odd story of my DNA test results

Ancestry DNA is an autosomal test, which means that it's not limited to gender. A more detailed guide to the differences between DNA test types can be found here. The Ancestry test requires a saliva sample, which required spitting into a tube. That turned out to be harder than expected because a LOT of spit was needed. Even so, we persevered and enough spittle was collected for the tests to be successful.

My wife's test results were pretty much what we expected, in that a variety of countries, regions, and percentages were presented in the Ethnicity Estimate prepared for her:

Ancestry DNA and Denise Amrich

My results, though, were disturbing. Although the test did report some countries of origin, my genetic history wasn't described in terms of those geographic locations. Instead, I was categorized as European Jewish (99%). My wife is Irish and, like many Irish folks, she was brought up Catholic. But her DNA results didn't describe her as Catholic. Yet my results said Jewish.

For someone who was subjected to years of religious-related emotional abuse as a child by a religion since disavowed, finding out that I'm tied to that religion down to my very DNA was deeply disturbing.

Ancestry DNA and David Gewirtz

Ancestry wasn't alone in choosing to describe my heritage based on religion rather than geographic location. 23andMe did the same thing. 23andMe also offers a spit kit to capture DNA material but goes beyond the autosomal tests performed by Ancestry. 23andMe incorporates X and Y chromosome and mtDNA tests as well:


Denise's results showed a wide range of geographic regions as you can see here:

23andMe and Denise Amrich

But my results once again listed me as Jewish, with very little detail about geographic heritage. Interestingly, in the trace data results, 23andMe showed a minuscule bit of East African and Native American heritage, which Ancestry had previously discarded from its estimate.

23andMe and David Gewirtz

Religion and DNA

Apparently, the idea that religion and race are based on self-identification is more of a modern political construct than a scientific one, at least as far as it concerns Judaism and DNA testing.

There has been a surprisingly large amount of research into identifying the DNA of Jewish people. While the very concept of DNA-typing an entire religious population brings to mind the worst of the Nazi regime, there are apparently good reasons for this, ranging from mere curiosity to identifying diseases and medical conditions common mostly to those of Jewish ancestry.

For example, researchers from the Molecular Medicine Laboratory at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Israel published an analysis, "The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people" in the July 8, 2010 issue of Nature. This team used high-density DNA bead arrays to genotype individuals from certain displaced Jewish communities and compare them to non-Jewish "old world" populations.

In another project, researchers from the Departments of Pathology and Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx published "The population genetics of the Jewish people" in the February 2013 issue of the journal Human Genetics. In this project, the researchers compare various DNA markers and studies against "archeology, archival records, linguistics, comparative analysis of religious narrative, liturgy and practices" to identify "a pattern for the population genetic architecture of contemporary Jews."

From these reports, it's easy enough to understand the scientific "how" of genetic similarity, but the "why" is much tougher to understand. Ricki Lewis, a science writer with a PhD in genetics, teaches at the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical Center. On her blog hosted on a network for scientific blogs, she posted the article "The Genomic Scars of Anti-Semitism."

In it, she explains the genomic concept of "bottlenecks." Genomic bottlenecks occur when a closely-knit population is largely decimated (whether by war, government, or natural disaster) and then is reconstructed from just a relatively few individuals. These bottlenecks serve to consolidate the gene pool, creating clusters of similar genetic markers among descendants of these bottleneck events.

Lewis goes on to explain that one of the reasons Jews apparently have relatively reliable genetic markers is that throughout the millennia, Jews have been subjected to numerous population-decimation events, ranging from ancient times through the 19th century pogroms of the Russian Empire to the rise of the Nazis and the extermination camps in World War II.

As it turns out, even though progressive-thinking organizations and governments have attempted to remove discrimination from race and religion in part by assigning these attributes through self-identification instead of biology, there are biological markers that do separate people.

Black people, almost exclusively, suffer from sickle cell disease, according to the Merck Manual. While Tay-Sachs disease and Sandhoff disease are quite similar, Tay-Sachs presents primarily to families of an Eastern European Jewish origin, while Sandhoff disease has no ethnic bias. Those of many ethnicities suffer from Neimann-Pick disease, but the more serious forms are found almost exclusively among Jews.

Cystic fibrosis is another life-shortening disease, but this one affects mostly people of Caucasian descent. And here's where we get back into the troubling political nature of race, discrimination, and health.

According to Kiara Buttler writing in Mother Jones, that's why funding for cystic fibrosis dwarfs that of sickle cell. She writes, "Spending on cystic fibrosis totaled $254 million-nearly four times the $66 million that was spent on sickle cell, even though the latter affects three times as many people."

More about Ancestry and 23andMe

It's worth noting that both Ancestry and 23andMe offer a tremendous amount of value-adds on top of the regional DNA heritage results.

Both Ancestry and 23andMe link you with other people who share portions of your DNA, which might help you find long-lost relatives. For me, Ancestry located 28 people it characterized as 3rd to 4th cousins and over a thousand people more distantly related. For my wife, Ancestry located three 2nd to 3rd cousins, four 3rd to 4th cousins, and a whole bunch more distantly related.

23andMe located one individual I've never met who shares my last name and is listed as a 1st to 2nd cousin. It identified well over 50 individuals as 2nd to 3rd cousins, and another thousand or so more distantly related. In my wife's case, it found one person listed as a 2nd to 3rd cousin, one listed as a 2nd to 4th cousin, and lots further removed.

Ancestry's family tree feature is the best I've seen. Although it's free to use, if you want access to the research tools connected to it, there are some added fees that are not inconsiderable. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to test that out sometime later and report back to you.

23andMe offers a lot more scientific and health-related tools than Ancestry. It has a deep set of reports identifying health traits common to those with similar DNA. Ancestry, probably feeling the competitive pressure, has just announced its own health-related DNA reports as an add-on service. I'm hoping to look at those in more depth in the future as well.

Fascinating results from Living DNA

Living DNA is the outlier in terms of DNA test results. It's a smaller company with a much smaller matching database, but it had some fascinating results far different from the nearly identical data presented by Ancestry and 23andMe.

Living DNA also performs autosomal analysis, along with mtDNA tests (which it calls Motherline analysis). It separates that out from the Y chromosome analysis (it calls this Fatherline analysis). The company provides Fatherline analysis to male customers only.

Denise's results were interesting but not all that unexpected. My results, on the other hand, were fascinating. Living DNA actually provides the level of information I was seeking about my heritage.

According to Living DNA, my Motherline is heavily centered in the Middle East:

Living DNA and David Gewirtz

By contrast, my Fatherline has heritage across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East:

Living DNA and David Gewirtz

Now, here's where it gets interesting. My family name is Gewirtz, which means spice. In ancient times, there was a spice road across Europe and Asia, where traders carried spices to far-flung lands. If you look at the two maps (my Fatherline heritage and the spice and silk trade routes), you can see how amazingly similar they are.

Wikipedia, Living DNA, David Gewirtz, and ancient spice traders

Cool, huh? My ancestors were probably named after the spice they traded.

What does it all mean?

Almost a year ago, I set out to answer some seemingly simple questions about my heritage: did my grandparents come from modern Russia or other Eastern European nations? To find out, I spit in some tubes and waited for the results.

When the results arrived, I found myself gut-punched back into a nightmare from childhood. My preconceptions about religion and ethnicity were rocked to their core. I found that while I could choose not to believe or live as a Jew, the very core of my being was built from genetic markers I could never separate myself from.

On the other hand, I found out that my last name, which means "spice," has a connection to my genetics. By tracing my father's ancestry back centuries, it was possible to see how the genetic material from a great many geographic regions leaves a map that closely tracks with the ancient spice trade.

As for whether or not my grandparents and great grandparents came from modern-day Russia or somewhere in the Russian empire, it seems clear they were probably not from any of the 17,125,200 square kilometers that make up the current Russian Federation.

And, oddly enough, even though no family member of mine has ever indicated any connection with any region other than Eastern Europe, I appear to have considerable DNA from numerous areas in Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.

Finally, because the results from Living DNA were so radically different than those from Ancestry and 23andMe, I'm forced to question, "Which is real? Can we really trust the results of any of these tests?" In my case, the confluence of my upbringing as the grandson of Jews that I know immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe, combined with the nations on the spice road in Living DNA's results, implies to me that each of these tests tell part of the story.

Millions of people lived their lives, and gave birth to offspring across the generations, so that I can be here sitting in front of my computer thinking these deep thoughts. Each of those people led full lives. All of them remain ghosts in the past who I will never know. To paraphrase the Borg, each of their uniqueness has been added to the collective which is my life and my DNA.

It's been an interesting journey. Doors that I thought were long closed popped open, a few skeletons rattled, and a little spice wound up being added to my life. All in all, I'm glad I know more than I did before.

Have you had your DNA tested? Did you encounter any surprises? Let us know what you think in the comments below. Because this topic has touched strongly on race and religion, I do ask you to remain civil, be kind, and just talk about your personal experiences with DNA testing. Thanks!

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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