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Megan Smolenyak Headshot

Are You My Cousin?

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As a genealogist, I'm lucky enough to play history detective for a living. Recently, some of my sleuthing -- discoveries about Michelle Obama's roots -- wound up in the New York Times. While the article focused on a pair of her ancestors, a perusal of the First Lady's entire family tree reveals branches sporting the surnames of Davis, Easley, Humphrey, Johnson, Jumper, Laws, McGruder, Morehead, Moten, Robinson, Shields, Thornton, Tinsley and Wade. If your ancestry includes any of these names, it's possible that you're cousins of some sort with Michelle Obama.

That might sound like an extreme claim, but if you go back far enough, we're all cousins. Do the math. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so forth. By the time you're back ten generations, you've got 1,024 ancestors. Twenty generations puts you over the million mark, and somewhere around thirty generations, your ancestors would seem to outnumber the world's entire population at the time.

The reason that's not the case is "pedigree collapse," known more casually as "kissing cousins." While this expression often invites snarky comments, none of us can go very far back in time without finding forebears tucked into tiny hamlets with limited spousal prospects, so unless they married a wandering stranger, chances are that many of your ancestors married a cousin of some sort. Each time that happened, your family tree shrank because the pedigrees of the husband and wife overlapped. Now consider the role of that occasional wandering stranger who carried his gene pool to a distant place and merged it with a far flung population. With each such coupling, more of us - perhaps from different continents - became cousins.

In an American Scientist article entitled "Genealogy in the Era of Genomics," Susanna C. Manrubia, Bernard Derrida and Damian H. Zanette reached the conclusion that, "In a population of 1,000 people who choose their mates randomly, 10 generations are normally enough to guarantee that any two people have some ancestor in common." Similarly, pondering the "interrelatedness of all creatures," Guy Murchie asserted that, "no human being (of any race) can be less closely related to any other human than approximately fiftieth cousin, and most of us (no matter what color our neighbors) are a lot closer." Of course, we aren't truly random in selecting our mates and Murchie acknowledged fiftieth cousins as a guesstimate, so we can debate how long ago the branches of our family trees become ensnarled, but the general concept of our interrelatedness still holds.

Since I muck about in pedigrees on a daily basis and have seen ample evidence of kissing cousins, I was already inclined to accept this notion of global cousinship, but now I have even more reason -- thanks to DNA.

As a long-time proponent of genetic genealogy (full disclosure: I'm co-author with Ann Turner, M.D. of Trace Your Roots with DNA), I jumped at the chance to be part of a beta study by 23andMe centered on a new Relative Finder feature. While this initiative is still in its let's-see-if-this-works stage, I'm already intrigued by what I'm seeing. The notion behind it is that anyone can take a DNA test and identify cousins, defined in the broadest sense -- first, second, third . . . all the way to tenth and distant.

To date, the testing has surfaced a whopping 160 cousins for me. Due to privacy walls, I'm only communicating with a few, so most remain a mystery. But as the scattered experimenters compare notes, we're already starting to uncover success stories -- hardcore genealogists finding cousins through the genetic gate and then revisiting the paper trail to determine the shared ancestors.

Unable to resist the urge to test the tester, I've been conducting my own experiment with this new functionality. All the Smolenyaks in the world trace their roots to a village called Osturna. Even today, it's literally the end of the road and snowed in for several months each year, so imagine how isolated it was in days gone by. In short, it's the perfect Petri dish for producing and examining kissing cousins, so I recruited 15 Osturnites to participate in the beta testing.

I haven't received all the results yet, but each time I get a fresh one, I compare what DNA indicates versus what the records and village database show to see if they jibe. Here, for instance, is an illustration that I think of as "six degrees of Brian."

2009-11-16-brianscousins.jpg


These are my husband Brian's connections at the moment, and every highlighted individual you see is another Osturnite. I'm still database-diving to substantiate the relationships, but the ones I've checked so far are accurate. In fact, every Osturnite tested so far is related to Brian - including me. I'm the one designated as a 10th cousin, which means that I'm both outing myself as a kissing cousin and lending my personal support to the claim that we're all related. You may have also noticed that Brian has plenty of additional cousins stemming from the non-Osturnite portion of his ancestry.

So theoretically, you're both Michelle Obama's cousin and mine. Any such connection may be too long ago for this new genetic testing to reveal, but even so, how remarkable is it to be able to find several hundred of your cousins by . . . well, spitting? And perhaps more importantly, is there any kumbaya dividend to be derived from a growing understanding that we're all kin?

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