DNA test can benefit even a Neanderthal

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I've done some genealogy this year, and it turns out I'm related to Luke the Evangelist, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Prince Philip and Susan Sarandon.

I see a look of surprise on your face. I had the same reaction: How the heck did Susan Sarandon get in there?

This startling new information came courtesy of 23andMe, which is not Liz Taylor's account of her married life but "the largest DNA ancestry service in the world."

It seems that more and more people are spitting into tubes or sending off cheek swabs to labs to discover their DNA roots. 23andMe is one of several companies capitalizing on this craze. Its name comes from the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a human cell, but I'm sure you figured that out.

To be honest, I've never met any of my famous relatives. (You try getting hold of Napoleon.)

But, as a fellow writer, I'd be interested in attending a Luke the Evangelist family reunion. ("Luke, love your stuff! How d'ya get published?")

My daughter gave me a 23andMe subscription (cost: about $100) after getting one herself. Her famous relatives include Jimmy and Warren Buffett and Leo Tolstoy but no Oscar winners, royalty or undersized empire-builders with Napoleon complexes.

I wish I could explain the discrepancy between father and daughter with regard to celebrity kin, and I'd rather not take a paternity test. 23andMe says my famous wealthy relatives came through my mother's line. Which makes sense. My mother grew up the daughter of impoverished Italian peasants in North Bergen, N.J., so the Marie Antoinette connection, for one, is obvious. If people can't see that, let them eat cake.

Actually, to be perfectly clear, my famous relatives and I are connected because we share the same "haplogroup." Any questions?

23andMe also provides valuable information on risks for certain diseases and maladies. For example, I have to watch out for melanoma and rheumatoid arthritis -- so far I'm OK -- but 23andMe is on the money with restless leg syndrome.

As for health traits, I am projected to have wet earwax. The public has a right to know that, but I have no further comment.

When it comes to ethnic ancestry, all my life I've been saying I'm half-Irish and half-Italian. It's a good thing my Irish father is no longer around to learn I'm related to Prince Philip, a "lousy limey" in his estimation.

But even worse, I have been ruled to be a mere 13.7 percent Irish -- hang on, not just Irish, but "British and Irish," an offensive pairing that would greatly disturb my father's eternal rest. Meanwhile, the Italian "half" has shrunk to a measly 5.7 percent.

So half-Irish, half-Italian? Not even close. I'm 19.4 percent Italian-Irish/British. But here's the big DNA payoff: The bulk of my heritage is -- wait for it -- 75.3 percent "nonspecific" European. Very helpful, 23andMe.

The rest is genetic bits and pieces. One surprise: I'm 1.5 percent Middle Eastern/North African. This makes sense since my mother's parents came from southern Italy, and we know that all kinds of wild partying went on around the Mediterranean. There's also a sliver of Scandinavian -- those fun rape-and-pillage Vikings, no doubt.

But here's what stopped me in my tracks and immediately affected my posture and eyebrow growth: I am 2.7 percent Neanderthal. (Hmm, nobody out there seems particularly surprised.) Of all the 23andMe findings, this had the biggest emotional impact.

I have to confess I've used the word "Neanderthal" more than a few times as an insult. It never occurred to me that it was hurtful. It never occurred to me that I was one.

Let's face it, anti-Neanderthalism is one of the last acceptable, universal forms of bigotry, possibly even more common than nasty cracks about West Virginians. You think "Redskins," as in Washington Redskins, is offensive to American Indians? How do you think Neanderthals feel about being called Neanderthals?

Maybe as more people discover similar roots, the Neanderthal community will shift from being the target of slurs and become a recognized aggrieved minority. Perhaps one day, Harvard will set aside a percentage of admissions for Neanderthals, thereby acknowledging Western civilization's moral failure and callous treatment of them over 350,000 years.

Now that I am face to face with my Neanderthal roots, I can appreciate what it's like to walk in their feet, and I am proud to embrace my heritage. Irish-Italian? Fugetaboutit. Now I stand stooped with Neanderthal pride.

Thanks, 23andMe.

Peter Leo of Squirrel Hill is a retired Post-Gazette columnist: peterleo11@comcast.net.


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