Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Italian Americans embrace DNA testing: Is it for you?

Ambassador magazine has purchased and my article on DNA testing for Italian Americans and published it in the spring 2020 edition. It was around 2,800 words when I submitted it, and it had to be cut to 1,400. Much of the editing improved it by changing some long direct quotes to shorter indirect quotes, but important concepts had to be cut as well.

If youre interested in reading it, you can chose the longer text version below, or read the shorter version that was published in the magazine, which is also included below.

Testing Your Ancestry DNA: What a Saliva Sample Can--and Can't--Tell About You

By Paul Spadoni

One or more of your parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from Italy. That makes you Italian, right? For some Italian Americans, that’s all they need to know—but millions of others have submitted their DNA to popular testing companies—paying as little as $59—to fill in gaps in their knowledge or see if science confirms what they already believe to be so.

One or more of your parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from Italy. That makes you Italian, right? For some Italian Americans, that’s all they need to know—but millions of others have submitted their DNA to popular testing companies—paying as little as $59—to fill in gaps in their knowledge or see if science confirms what they already believe to be so.

More than 26 million people—mostly Americans—have taken genetic ancestry tests, according to MIT Technology Review. Ancestry, the market leader, has tested more than 15 million alone, and the numbers roughly double annually.

The two main reasons for the burgeoning popularity of these tests are curiosity about one’s ethic origins and to find previously unknown relatives. Some companies also provide health information, such as predisposition to specific diseases.

In many cases, little information about “the old country” has been passed down from one generation to the next—and is this limited information even accurate? Is it possible that one’s earlier ancestors immigrated to Italy from some other country before subsequently leaving for America?

“I wanted to know where I came from and who my ancestors were, and then pass that information to my son and future generations,” said Nicole Gallant Nunes of Danvers, Massachusetts. “My great-grandfather left Italy alone at age 13 to live with an uncle in Boston to learn how to be a barber. He never spoke much of his life in Italy, so we weren’t really sure of his origins. My DNA confirmed that both my grandfather and grandmother had deep roots in small towns in the Avellino area of Italy.”

While some just seek confirmation of their ethnicity, finding relatives is a strong motivation for others, especially those seeking to create or add to their family trees.

“I cherish my ethnicity, and DNA testing is a way to confirm, share it and find relatives,” said Frannie Myannie of Cranston, Rhode Island. “I tested 80% Italian, which was not a surprise, since all my grandparents were from southern Italy. But I was surprised to see percentages of Arab, Egyptian, Spanish, Portuguese and Asian. I lack knowledge about Italy’s history, and this has inspired me to learn to understand it better. It has also piqued my interest to visit the comuni (hometowns) of my ancestors, and I did visit three of the four. I made some wonderful acquaintances, and it was the best experience of my life.”

“I know exactly where my parents and grandparents came from,” said Gae Nastasi of Brisbane, Australia. “For me, the DNA test allowed us to find relatives who had left Sicily early in the 20th century and gone to the USA, and with whom we had lost contact. We found a whole branch of the family which we had always wondered about. They had left before my mother was born, so all she knew was that they had gone to America.”

“I did DNA testing three years ago, and it has seriously taken over my life,” said Annette Gigliotti Steele of Gresham, Oregon. “Oh my gosh, cousins were coming out of the woodwork! It was also really cool to see the test put me smack dab in Calabria, where my family originated from.”

Even though DNA tests don’t show exactly how people who share genetic similarities are related, they can lead to contacts with other relatives who have already done the hard research.

“My father’s dad passed before I was born, and I had knowledge of only three of his siblings,” said Benita Cicero of Alexander, Arkansas. “Though 23andMe, I matched two second cousins. I loved it all, especially meeting and talking with new cousins.”

Joanne Cretella
“I didn’t know much about my mom’s side of the family,” said Joanne Cretella of Naugatuck, Connecticut. “I’ve found many cousins who have given me photos and stories that I never would have known otherwise,”

Despite these happy stories, genealogists and geneticists caution that the tests can lead to false hopes and confusion for people who don’t understand how the process works. This is sometimes fed by overly enthusiastic advertisements from the many testing services, which may, as CRI Genetics does, promise customers “an accurate detailed portrait of your family’s history.”

Lynn Serrafinn at Lake Garda, Italy.
“Marketing campaigns love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and close relations,” said Lynn Serafinn, author and professional genealogist from Bedford, England. “For most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging.”

Because of privacy concerns, potential relatives may be listed only by their initials. The testing services provide the ability to send messages, but often people don’t respond, likely because they took the test for curiosity about ethnic origins instead of establishing new contacts.

Another area that critics believe is overhyped is the accuracy of the ethnicity reports. Each testing company has reference groups of people from various countries who have had genetic tests. Scientists then compare the DNA strands to find commonalities, and your DNA will be analyzed against these results to see where your ancestors may have come from. The accuracy of the results depends both on the size of the reference panel and the genetic diversity of the country.

“Ethnicity reports from DNA testing companies do not—and cannot—tell you ‘who you are’ but only who you are most similar to in comparison to other test takers in their systems,” Serafinn said.

Another genealogist, Bob Sorrentino of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, points out that it is important to rely on old-fashioned research.

Bob Sorrentino
“All my grandparents were born in Italy, so naturally I believed I would be mostly Italian, which I am,” Sorrentino said, “but I’m also Spanish, Greek and a bit of Persian.”

Sorrentino has used traditional genealogy methods to trace some of his ancestors back as far as 1,000 years, and he has found roots from other countries.

“DNA is only one part of the puzzle,” he said. “Documentation, to the extent that you can find it, is the other. Through (Italian website) Antenati, I found Swiss and Spanish great grandparents, and through historical documents I found ancestors from almost every European royal family.”

Italian ethnicity results are complicated by the fact that DNA from southern Italians is different than that of northern Italians.
“Of all the European countries, Italy is the most genetically diverse within its own population, which is reflective of its history as a crossroads of human migration and settlement,” said Vincent Palozzi, a professor at Miami University and an administrator of Italy DNA Project.

Southern Italy, especially Sicily, has been invaded more than 17 times in the past 2,000 years. It has seen extensive periods of foreign domination including Greek, Roman, Vandal, Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Aragonese and Spanish.

Alfio Di Mauro, right, with travel guru Rick Steves.
“Sicily is in the center of the Mediterranean,” said Alfio Di Mauro of Sicily, a former science researcher at the University of Catania and now a tour guide. “It is a fertile garden-like land and a natural steppingstone between Europe and Africa. No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions. For thousands of years, it was the island to control; it was considered the center of the civilized world.

“You’ll never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which region has the highest genetic diversity in Europe? It’s Sicily!”

Northern Italy has also had its share of occupiers, but the invaders generally came by land from the North, whereas attackers of southern Italy came by sea from other regions in the Mediterranean basin. Northern Italians tend to have genetic traits in common with their French, German and Spanish neighbors.

DNA testing is not common or popular in most European countries. In fact, it is restricted by privacy laws in Italy, so the data bases are still small, and some companies have found it difficult to differentiate the regions. This can create confusion, doubt and even dismay for people who have identified themselves as Italian and then find out that a testing company has labeled them as something else.

“I’m the state recording secretary for the Sons and Daughters of Italy,” said Gina Natucci of Tacoma, Washington. “But my DNA test from Ancestry came back saying I was 7% Italian, and that has since been revised to 0%. Other members of my family have also been revised to 3% or less. That was a surprising, shocking and disappointing. My great grandparents moved here from Tuscany in the early 1900s. Were they really from somewhere else?”

However, Natucci has done her own research, which involved visiting the parish archives in Pescia, Italy, and thus far she has traced her grandfather’s ancestral line back to 1725. “I trust the paper trail much more than what the DNA testing company says.”

Another issue that irks scientists are marketing claims the companies use, such as “Find out who you really are,” “Reinvent the way you see yourself” and experience “the awesome process of discovering yourself.” While Italian Americans express a fondness for Italy and Italian culture, would someone who takes a DNA test and finds out they are actually more Scottish than Italian suddenly develop a yearning to play bagpipes and wear a kilt? Is an affinity for your ancestral culture inherent or learned?

“I understand that people want to research their family histories and find out more about their heritage,” said Ryan Anderson, cultural and environmental anthropologist at the University of Santa Clara. “Tracing your family genealogy can be fascinating. The problem is that these tests seriously conflate culture and biology. Culture is not genetic. There is no ‘Irish’ or ‘German’ gene or combination of genes. That’s just not how it works.

“Culture is shared, patterned, learned behavior. Humans may have the biological capacity for culture, but the specific expression of that capacity is a matter of social relationships and history. Cultural behavior is not intrinsic or inherent. Nobody is born with a certain culture or set of cultural behaviors–people learn it over time.”

Timothy Caulfield, a health policy professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, said the marketing departments of many testing companies have gone overboard in their claims about DNA testing.

“These companies are really trying to push the idea that this is scientific,” he said in a televised interview with CBC Marketplace. “They present it in a way that looks very scientific and precise. It’s an exciting story. It’s about you, but I think it’s recreational science. People can have a little bit of fun.

“Don’t take it too seriously but know that you’re just getting some information of how your DNA compares to other people. It’s not tracing back your heritage.”

Knowing what company to choose and what kind of test to request can be confusing, considering there are four different kinds of tests and many testing agencies.

Four major companies offer DNA testing—Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage—although several more have started within the last few years.

Four genealogically related analyses can be done, although not all companies perform all tests,” Palozzi said. “Briefly, testing can be done on the y chromosome (yDNA identifies direct paternal lineage), the x chromosome (xDNA, female pattern of inheritance), mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA identifies direct maternal lineage) and autosomal DNA (atDNA, overall ethnic/geographical origins). Which tests a person should order depends on the person’s testing goals.”

Most people choose autosomal, because it gives more information on geographical origins. Because it is so much more popular, the chances of finding relatives is also much higher. Ancestry has the largest database, so one is more likely to find relatives there. Some experts called in question its formula for determining Italian ethnicity, especially for northern Italian regions and Tuscany.

Italian and Italian American Spadoni cousins meet in Italy. An Ancestry DNA test was the key to their coming together. Susan Spadoni, Sauro Spadoni, Suzanne Spadoni, Paul Spadoni, Annette Spadoni Bannon, Sharon Spadoni Marr.
Sorrentino recommends Ancestry for finding relatives but Living DNA for ethnicity. Palozzi favors 23andMe as the most accurate for determining Italian origins, but he added this caveat: “Which companies provide the most accurate results at any given time can change, because each company has its own reference database which is updated from time to time. Additionally, companies may use different mathematical formulas to do their analyses, and the science continues to develop, providing more refined analyses.”

Serafinn, who has extensively researched her father’s northern Italian ancestry, received analyses from four companies: Ancestry, 23andMe, CRI Genetics and MyHeritageDNA. Of these, MyHeritageDNA matched her genealogical research most closely. However, she found comparisons difficult because “no two companies have the same test people in their reference panels, no two companies have the same number of ethnic groups, no two companies label their populations with the same names and no two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.”

Palozzi said he expects the companies to steadily become more accurate and detailed as their sample sizes increase.

“Your testing can help scientists and historians better understand the development of modern Italy,” he said, “and it may help others who are trying to discover their own roots. It’s only because of the people who have tested so far that we can do these analyses, and the more who test, the better the analyses will be.”

Another cautionary note is added by Ancestry on its website: “You may discover unexpected facts about yourself or your family when using our services. Once discoveries are made, we can’t undo them.” This warning is provided because some people discover for the first time that they are not genetically related to a parent, sibling or cousin because of what genealogists call a non-paternity event. This can result from undisclosed adoption, sperm donation, marital infidelity, rape or medical mistakes during procedures such as in vitro fertilization. Estimates of misattributed paternity range from 2% to 12%.

Discovery of a non-paternity event was initially devasting to Steven King, who shared his feelings on Megyn Kelly Today in 2018. King recommends joining a support group, many of which can easily be found online.

“It’s such basic information about your individuality that should not be revealed via email,” King said. “Such personal details should be revealed to you by your family. If you’re going to get a DNA test, be prepared. The information could be life-changing.”

Some people may be hesitant to send their DNA off to a big company because of privacy concerns and fears that their data may be stolen, sold or obtained by the government. However, they all make strong statements about the importance of privacy and the efforts they take to protect it. They have state-of-the art systems to prevent hacking and security breaches.

“Customers can control how much of their information is made available to other users,” Palozzi said. “Privacy and security have always been a priority with the major companies, and since they have European customers, they’re following stricter European Union laws over the U.S. laws.”

23andMe’s website says: “Respect for customer privacy and transparency are core principles that guide 23andMe’s approach to responding to legal requests and maintaining customer trust. We will not share your data with any public databases. We will not provide any person’s data to an insurance company or employer. Unless required to do so by law, we will not release a customer’s individual-level personal information to any third party without asking for and receiving that customer’s explicit consent. More specifically, we will closely scrutinize all law enforcement and regulatory requests and we will only comply with court orders, subpoenas, search warrants or other requests that we determine are legally valid.”

Whatever one’s motivations for testing, if current trends continue, more than 100 million people will have submitted their genes for testing by the end of 2021. And whether one is determined to be 100% or 1% Italian by the arbitrary standards of ethnicity, sometimes it’s wise to set aside technicalities and consider the words of the late poet Enzo Camilleri: “Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again. Italy is something inside you . . . an intoxication that takes you away in the moments when you are in apnea, a beauty tattooed on your eyes that projects you, in the blink of an eye, well above the ugliness that surrounds you.”

Paul Spadoni is an author and speaker on the topics of Italian living and genealogy. He writes a popular blog, “Living (with) Abroad in Tuscany,” and is the author of a Readers’ Choice award-winning memoir, “An American Family in Italy: Living la Dolce Vita without Permission.” Spadoni has obtained his jure sanguinis Italian citizenship and lives in both Montecarlo, Italy, and Gig Harbor, Washington.

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