DNA testing cannot confirm Native American Ancestry: PSA

‘DNA tests are great at demonstrating genetic relationships, even some that go back tens of thousands of years, but they can’t confirm whether or not someone has Native ancestors, according to experts. Professor Kim Tallbear, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, offered a 47-tweet explanation of the issue on Tuesday after a failed Republican candidate claimed otherwise. Companies that offer genetic tests will never be able to pinpoint a person’s specific or even general tribal heritage, she wrote.”It’s unreasonable for scientists to conceive of tribe-specific markers,” Tallbear wrote in one of her tweets. “‘Tribes’ mixed a lot, on their own & due to colonial policy.”But even if the companies refined their methods, a test still might not show whether someone has a Native ancestor, especially one in the distant past. The material that a person inherits from his or her parents boils down to a genetic lottery.

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‘So will all of this get better as we get more sophisticated genetic tests? Or could better genetic tests help amass more data that would improve the precision of these tests? Probably not—in fact, it might get more complicated.

“Scientists who don’t know better claim that when more Natives are sampled they’ll have better data bases, i.e. more Native markers,” said Kim TallBear, professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta in a 47-tweet takedown of Brown’s remarks about Warren. “[Geneticists] think that with more markers, and greater historical-genetic resolution they’ll be able to pinpoint tribe-specific markers.” But this does not account for the fact that people are continuously moving and reproducing with other, diverse people. They mix their genetic code with other communities (as they always have, going back to the dawn of our species). If anything our DNA is getting more muddled, not more clear…

Another issue is limited and inconsistent data. Ancestry.com, for example, divides the world up into 26 genetic regions and uses just 115 samples to create the representative of each region—a very small sample size. And different companies place different weight on these samples, which come from burial grounds, modern isolated communities, and academically published data, like the Human Genome Diversity Project. For the consumer, this means if you don’t like your heritage results, try a different company. You’ll get a completely different breakdown.

Whether there’s any harm in people basing their identity on faulty reasoning is unclear, but the success of these commercial endeavors proves that at the very least, consumers find it kind of fun. Genetic testing is basically just a low-cost way to get a blurry picture of whom your ancestors might have been related to.

Just don’t take that picture too seriously.’

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See also, Ancestry Adventure parts 1, 2, 3. 


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