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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Who's your Daddy? Genealogy/genetics testing becomes mainstream

Interesting article about modern uses for genetics testing and genealogy.

Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, Harlingen architect Danny Villarreal had heard the stories from his grandparents. His ancestors, it was whispered, had come to Mexico from Spain under something of a cloud. Apparently, they were not purebred Castilian Spaniards, but members of a persecuted minority -- namely, Jews who had converted to Catholicism on pain of death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

Villarreal was intrigued. As he grew older, he took up genealogy as a hobby. "It's turned into a pretty big thing," he says. Villarreal discovered a paper trail to back up the stories of his family's elders. In Saltillo, Mexico, he found a 380-year-old document that concerned one ancestor of his -- Diego de Villarreal -- who had gotten a little too full of himself for the local padre's liking. "One of the documents out of Saltillo was the parish priest complaining to the Inquisition about this guy Diego de Villarreal, who had some silver mines and was a captain in the military," Villarreal says. "The complaint was that he would come into town wearing silk clothing and jewelry, and he was allowed to bear arms. People who were 'New Christians' " -- recently converted Jews -- "were not allowed to do those things. It was all political, he had a lot of power, he had his own little army. I guess the Church didn't like that."

In the end, nothing came of the priest's tattling letter. The Inquisition's enforcers weren't about to leave their comfortable offices in Mexico City and sully their long black robes in the Nuevo Leon dust, not to mention risk their scalps at the hands of the Apaches and Comanches then raiding along the route, and the local authorities swept the affair under the rug. For good reasons: "The thing was that the people who were ruling northern Mexico during that time were all descendants of Jews, so this priest didn't have the political power to be able to get him out," Villarreal says.

At least that's the theory. And as far as the case of Diego de Villarreal goes, it would seem that in the 17th century, northern Mexico -- which included Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California -- was run and in no small part populated by crypto-Jews. But was there anything to back up this idea other than legends and moldering documents in Mexican archives? Couldn't it be that the priest had been motivated to denounce de Villarreal as an uppity New Christian by simple jealousy? Or maybe de Villarreal had insulted the priest. Who knows?

The long and the short of it is this: Sometimes documents tell lies, but DNA never does, at least if you conduct your tests in a competently run lab. Danny Villarreal discovered a Houston company, Family Tree DNA, that conducts DNA tests for genealogical purposes. He ordered a kit, swabbed some genetic material from the inside of his cheek and mailed it back to Houston. FTDNA sent the test off to a genetics lab at the University of Arizona, and a few weeks later Villarreal got his results back. Although the company didn't find that he was related to anyone then in its database, it did have a few surprises for him.

First, there was his haplogroup -- the genetic marker that goes back on his Y chromosome for tens of thousands of years. All humanity is divided into 18 of these, and Mexicans of European descent would likely be in either haplogroup R-1A or R-1B, the most common groups in Western Europe, or if they were primarily of Native American descent, Q or Q-3. Villarreal's was E-3B, which is a Semitic haplogroup that evolved in East Africa and then spread around the Mediterranean and is most common today in the Middle East and in North and East Africa. Then there were his closest genetic matches. All three of them were to Jews in places like Hungary, Belarus and Poland. It appeared that the parish priest back in Saltillo had not been lying after all.

On discovering his Jewish ancestry, Villarreal says, his reaction was mixed. "I was kinda surprised. I didn't know how to react," he says. "I'm a good ol' Catholic boy -- I went to Catholic schools and everything. It's not gonna change my religion or anything like that, but it was kind of interesting."

It turns out that Villarreal is far from alone. There are plenty of genetic Jews among the Hispanics of South Texas, the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Companies like FTDNA are turning them up all the time -- not to mention establishing kinships where none were known to exist, solving history's mysteries and answering questions people have about themselves that until now had no answers.

[...]
FTDNA also can answer the ultimate genealogical poser: If you're a male, and thus the owner of a Y chromosome, it literally can tell you where your ancestors were in prehistoric times. (Women who want to test can find out their haplogroup by testing their mitochondrial DNA; if they want to test their male ancestry, they have to persuade a male relative to take the test.) "I can tell that your deep ancestry comes from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, whether his father's father's father was African, or a Semite," says Greenspan. "In other words, I can tell if someone is descended from the Neolithic farmers who came to Europe 9,500 years ago, or I can tell someone that in all probability they are a -- how can I put this -- an ethnic Jew."

Which brings up another potential dark side. During the holocaust, Hitler relied on traditional genealogy to dispatch millions to the death camps. One Jewish grandparent was all it took. A modern-day Hitler would have much more sophisticated tools at his disposal. Greenspan -- who is Jewish himself -- doesn't dispute it. "The fact of the matter is, anything that has power can cut both ways," he says. "And this is powerful. If there was some tyrannical maniac who came along and said, 'I'm gonna kill everyone who has Viking ancestry,' then I think the technology in general would be dangerous. I don't know how you could put the genie back in the bottle on this."

Villarreal had some uncomfortable moments after revealing his distant Jewish ancestry on his Web site. "I get a lot of hate mail from people all the time," he says. "I never realized there was so much hatred of Jews -- I mean I got some pretty bad e-mails. So bad that I have to take 'em off my Web site and block the senders. Stuff like, 'If I had Jewish blood running in my veins, I wouldn't admit it to anybody,' stuff like that. Some of it comes from people who I know are Hispanic and who also know about the history of the Sephardic Jews and stuff like that."

[...]
Like many genealogists, Greenspan hit some dead ends. In the mid-'90s, he discovered another Greenspan living in Argentina who grew up ten miles from his grandfather in Ukraine and whose family was in the same business as his. He had a hunch that they were related, but there were no documents to back it up. He wanted to do a DNA test, but no company did DNA testing for genealogical purposes back then. "I searched everywhere, and I was talking to a genetics professor at the University of Arizona, and he said somebody should start a company doing something like this, because he got phone calls from genealogists all the time," he says. "And sure enough, it took me a while, but eventually I convinced him at the University of Arizona to do the testing, and the rest is history. We really are the first company in the world to offer this service."

The Arizona genetics professor is Michael Hammer, who made waves in the '90s by discovering the Cohanim gene in Jews. By tradition, Cohanim are Judaism's priestly caste, said to be descended from Moses's brother Aaron. Hammer conducted a study and proved that a statistically significant percentage of Jewish men who claimed to be Cohanim did in fact share a genetic signature. Today, Hammer's lab does FTDNA's tests on a for-profit basis, and Greenspan's Houston office runs the operations.

And the business is doing well. The first anthrogenealogy conference, held in Houston late last year, was a success. Greenspan was treated as a rock star by the mostly aging genealogists who attended. The future of this young hybrid science was a hot topic. Greenspan believes his company will do nothing less than help to revolutionize the whole concept of the family tree. "Think of it this way: Think of the anthropological side as the branches and the limbs of a tree. Think of the genealogical side as the leaves. Right now we're probably missing the twigs -- in other words, I can tell a man by looking at his leaves what branch of the tree and maybe even what limb of the tree, but I can't tell him what twig he is on. Yet at the same time I can look at the leaves and make a comparison of them and get an idea of who is related. I think in the next few years many of those branches are gonna get fleshed out in such a way that we'll be able to do the whole branch-limb-twig-leaf deal.

"In the next ten years, every single surname is going to have a DNA surname project," he says. "That is literally inevitable."