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Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy?

Mixed Media

The kit from National Geographic’s Genographic Project is just two simple swabs and a couple of test tubes. But what it can reveal about your genetic background is amazingly complex.

When the kit arrives, all you do is take a cheek swab, insert the swab into the tube, and send it to a lab that compares your sample with DNA from thousands of people around the globe. Researchers look for mutations in your X and Y chromosomes—like spelling mistakes in the genetic code—and trace them back to where and when those mutations were present.

If your ancestor had a mutation in his or her chromosomes, that marker is shared by all the descendants who come afterwards. Men, who have both X and Y chromosomes, carry markers for both their paternal and maternal lines. Women, who carry two X chromosomes, can see only their maternal line.

My son got the kit for Christmas. We only had to wait for six weeks before we got results. The researchers warn you to be prepared for surprises—and they were right.

My son’s paternal line (the Rang side) showed that our ancestors had moved out of Africa, through Saudi Arabia, had settled in northern India and then back west through Russia before arriving in Northern Europe. Interestingly, my dad had always claimed we had a distant Asian heritage stretching back beyond the written records. Turns out he was right.

And boy, does the time scale ever go far back. For example, the results say my earliest genetic paternal ancestor lived in Africa 75,000 years ago. The group scientists call “branch M45,” which moved into central Asia, did so 35,000 years ago. Even my first European ancestor—branch M343—wasn’t on the continent until 17,000 years ago. Scientists arrive at this data using what’s known as the “molecular clock,” which is the rate that molecules are transmitted in DNA.

This is where the science of molecular genetics would seem to contradict faith. So the challenge for any Christian taking the test will be trying to reconcile these two stories—the one written in Scripture and the one written in our DNA. It requires that we square the data—assembled using our God-given powers of reason and the records of natural history—with the story of creation and salvation.

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