by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, May 31, 2018
Most holidays don’t start with spitting in a test-tube. Yet here I am, in the loos at the Telegraph’s office, filling a vessel with my saliva.
I close the lid, which deposits some kind of chemical goo into the tube, return to my desk, pop the tube in an envelope and post it back to the DNA testing company 23andMe.
In a few weeks from now, they will email me a link. This will give me a breakdown of where in the world I am from, according to my DNA.
23andMe feels like something straight from Charlie Brooker’s imagination. The test tube arrives in a white box with ‘Welcome to you’ written on the front, while the website is littered with cartoony DNA strands and photographs of people with dead-behind-the-eyes smiles. You can imagine its slogans like “23 pairs of chromosomes, one unique you” booming around its Silicon Valley headquarters in a robotic American accent.
But Black Mirror fantasies aside, 23andMe is actually just the latest strand in an enormous global industry: ancestral tourism.
The desire to track down our genealogical background is nothing new, and is particularly popular among American and Canadian tourists. Research suggests that 23 per cent of long-haul visitors to Scotland travel there to track down their Scottish ancestry. On Visit Scotland’s last count in 2012, this amounted to 213,000 trips per year.
Ireland also has a booming market for ancestral tourism. Companies like My Ireland Tour and Irish Emigrant Trails offer bespoke trips based on your ancestry, while an entire year (2013) was branded as ‘Family History Year’, presumably targeted mainly to the 33 million-or-so Americans who identify as Irish.
Broadly speaking, until now the practice of tracing down your ancestry is something you’d expect retirees to engage in. Maybe it’s the time and patience involved. Anyone who has watched programmes like the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? will know that the process of building a genealogical timeline involves trawling through libraries and archives to dig out birth certificates and hospital records, before pinning sepia photos to a corkboard with pieces of string connecting Aunt Dilys to Great Aunt Phyllis.
But the service that 23andMe offers is ancestral tourism for the Google-age, providing a rough family-tree for millennials who have never climbed one - all for a fee of £79. And it is smart to get into this game - a quick glimpse at the Google Trends chart for searches of “My Ancestry” displays a clear growth in interest over the last decade. Why the popularity?
“A lot of 20-somethings are exploring their ancestry because they might not have heard this from their family, and might not know where they’re from before they take the tests. In terms of a demographic, younger people are the most interested in travelling after receiving their results,” Jhulianna Cintron from 23andMe told me.
I’ve only ever expressed a very passing interest in my family tree. But when I opened up the 23andMe link, a URL to my DNA, I was genuinely excited (had I opted for its Health Report, I might have been panicking about predictions of awful disease - I’d rather leave that one to the treadmill of time, thank you very much).
A map showed where my DNA is from, with a percentage breakdown beside it.
The fact I’m 57.6 per cent British and Irish didn’t come as a surprise. The 9.7 per cent German was unexpected. “We predict you had ancestors that lived in Germany within the last 200 years,” my results read. I wonder where?
Then there’s the 1.2 per cent Scandinavian. For a family known for its dark brown locks and below-average heights this seems a bit odd. My 3.3 per cent Iberian feels more like it.
But then there was one result that really piqued my interest. Ashkenazi Jewish is 7.5 per cent. Memories of a laminated family-tree, distributed by my grandparents when I was too young to care, come flooding back.
My great grandmother’s side - the Nathans - were pre-colonial Jewish merchants who moved to New Zealand. A quick Google search and the Wikipedia page ‘History of the Jews in New Zealand’ tells me they were based in Auckland.
I’m also interested that I am apparently “More Neanderthal than 94 per cent of 23andMe Customers”. I have the strand for straight hair (correct) and slightly below average height (see above). Maybe this isn’t psuedoscience after all.
So what am I meant to do with all this information?
23andMe doesn’t offer travel itineraries, but what they offer is a well-packaged glimpse into your genetic background with impressively detailed accompanying information on things like your maternal and paternal haplogroups - your ancient ancestral path.
Realistically I’m not about to spend thousands of pounds travelling to New Zealand to track down my long-lost Jewish heritage, nor am I going to travel to Germany, Iberia or Scandinavia in the name of speculative heritage tourism. But 23andMe has given me a taste into the fascinating appeal of digging out your family lineage.
With time to research properly and money to burn, this Neanderthal wouldn’t rule out a retirement trip to Auckland in 2060.