Who are you?
More and more people are trying to trace their ancestry with a quick DNA test. A new book -- and my own experiment -- show that science can reveal some interesting things about your past, but not necessarily what you want to know.
By Laura Miller
June 26, 2006 | Every family has its genealogical myths, legends and secrets. There's the Native American ancestor some clans like to talk about and the Jewish or black (or in the case of African-American families, white) great-great-grandparent that no one mentions or even knows for sure existed. Whole nations tell themselves similar stories about the past. Icelanders believe their country was settled by Norsemen and the British or Irish women they brought (often unwillingly) with them. British schoolchildren are taught that when the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain in the 5th century, they pushed Britain's Celtic inhabitants out to the hinterlands of Scotland and Wales and made England an essentially Anglo-Saxon country.
Until recently, it's been impossible to prove or disprove any of these stories. DNA analysis has changed all that, and as New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade explains in his new book, "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors," in the process it has toppled more than one cherished belief. It turns out, for example, that most Icelanders are probably descended from Norsewomen and that a large proportion of the male population of Britain carries the Y chromosome of the Celtic speakers who were supposedly chased off the land by the Anglo-Saxons. Similar research has established that an astonishing 8 percent of the men living in the vast territory formerly controlled by the Mongol Empire are most likely direct descendants of Genghis Khan.
The power of DNA analysis to nab criminals, exonerate the wrongly convicted and determine a baby's true paternity has understandably impressed everyone and provided new fodder for trashy daytime talk shows. With "Before the Dawn," however, Wade goes further, offering a survey of how cutting-edge genetics has been combined with a variety of other sciences to solve, or at least further illuminate, some long-standing puzzles in humanity's distant -- and more recent -- past. As with any powerful%