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HumaniTeens: Cultural vs. Genetic Heritage

August 10, 2017

In this installment, Stella and Zehra relate taking ancestral DNA tests, their results, and what this meant to each of them.


It was surreal receiving my DNA results. Beforehand, I assumed my DNA would be fairly black-and-white. Half English, half Eastern European Jewish seemed more than probable. All my expectations were shattered upon the discovery that, for instance, only 10% of my DNA is from Great Britain. Stories have emerged in recent years of those who thought their family line could be traced to one part of the world, only to have their lifelong perception of their heritage challenged with their results. I speak from experience—it is shocking at the least to be confronted with the fact that 21% of you as a person is Scandinavian—a culture I know little about, let alone one with which I identify. This presents to me the challenging question with no clear answer: What, exactly, is the difference between culture and ethnicity? How can I be “the English girl” when I’m considerably more Scandinavian? These questions take me beyond my DNA results and into the heart of ancestral research.

Family history is more than a birth date and a death date, it quite literally makes you who you are. Tasked with the daunting challenge of finding myself on a family tree and looking deep into records kept by generations past, I yearn for more than just dates and numbers. I want to know who these people are that came before me, and on the scientific side, how it is possible that their DNA has been passed on to me. Furthermore, recognizing how my cultural background and the scientific data match up (or clash) has been an ongoing journey for me.

Exploring my DNA results was very insightful to both me and my family. I learned more about where I come from, and the inspiration to learn more about my family strengthened. While the results were surprising, through reading about how the testing is done and what it means I have learned more about myself and my family, an experience I am extremely grateful for.


I have always had a stark interest in genetics, specifically my genetics. I have always wanted to know what my ancestral makeup was. However, I did not have the information or tools to do it because there was no way to trace my lineage in Pakistan. I finally was able to purchase a 23andme kit for my 16th birthday, and I diligently checked its progress daily. All I knew about my father was that his mother came from the Indian side before Partition, and many relatives had light skin and green eyes. On my mother’s side, I knew that my great-grandmother was Iranian, but born and raised in India before the Partition. I also was extremely curious as to whether I had European DNA because of the 200 years of colonization from Great Britain.

One day, when I was doing my daily kit check, I found that my results were in, and I wasted no time opening them. The first percentage I saw was 85.5% South Asian. Excitement bubbled through me as I read the rest of my results. I am 10.4% Middle Eastern, 1.8% European, 0.6% East Asian, and 1.8% Unassigned. Within the European category, I received 0.4% Broadly Northwestern European, 0.6% Broadly Southern European, and 0.9% Broadly European. Within the East Asian category, I was 0.2% Southeast Asian, < 0.1% Yakut, and 0.3% Broadly East Asian.

My DNA results were almost exactly as I expected them. The only thing that was strange was Yakut. I had no clue what that was! After some research, I discovered they were a Siberian tribe, which aligned with stories that my family had about connections to the Mongol Empire. I was not surprised with all the populations that I had ancestry from, but it made me wonder where the cultural portion of each population was lost. Most significantly, my Iranian DNA. I do not feel disconnected from this heritage, but I am not very involved. I would say my entire cultural background is Pakistani. I understand how my European and East Asian DNA were unknown and eventually became a myth to my family, as they were hundreds of years ago. Although my great-grandmother was Iranian, I know very little about Persian culture. My knowledge extends to cuisine and a tiny bit of Farsi. This has prompted me to learn more about this heritage that makes up about an eighth of me.

Overall, I have no regrets taking this ancestry test because it has allowed me to discover pieces of my heritage that I could only speculate about. I would recommend this service to anyone who wants to find out more about themselves and their family.