I open my DNA report—and blink.
I’m a what?
When 23andMe, the DNA testing people, offered to help me investigate my ancestral roots and find out where in the world I was from—at the very least, I expected to find out I’m human.
However, the next line of the report is a lot more reassuring:
“However, your Neanderthal ancestry accounts for less than 4% of your overall DNA.”
More than 96% human! I’ll take it.
In fact, we all have Neanderthal DNA, according to National Geographic:
Everyone living outside of Africa today has a small amount of Neanderthal in them, carried as a living relic of these ancient encounters. A team of scientists comparing the full genomes of the two species concluded that most Europeans and Asians have between 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA.
And, it seems, a few lucky Americans have double the amount of Neanderthal in them. So what does this mean? Am I blessed with some kind of extra-human superpower? The report answers my question for me:
(I don’t think I’m going to be in the next Marvel movie, guys.)
It’s a profound thing to be faced with your ancestors. This is cutting-edge science showing me the faint traces of hundreds of generations stretching into my past—and crossing half the world in the process.
Modern humans walked out of Africa over 100,000 years ago, and my family line settled in Europe, coexisting with Neanderthals and at some point interbreeding with them.
In other words, I’m an immigrant—and, quite frankly, if you look back far enough, we’re all immigrants.
As someone who has spent his entire adult life wanting deeper connections with the rest of the world, this is music to my ears.
I skip closer to the present.
Like many modern Americans, I am a genetic newcomer to this part of the world. There’s no contradiction here—I am 100% a citizen of the United States, born and bred. Genetically speaking, however, I’m 100% European.
I have often felt like I was born European in the body of an American. I guess this proves me right.
The footprints of my ancestors walk all over Europe, just as their impossibly distant ancestors can be tracked south, into Africa.
As a world traveler, I couldn’t be more delighted. These are the results I was hoping for. In every way that counts, I am the genetic result of a lot of travel.
I’m also an immigrant—and that’s worth dwelling on for a minute.
Why Don’t Americans Travel More?
It’s a worrying fact that in 2016, just 36% of Americans held a valid passport, according to the State Department’s figures. That’s compared with 60% of Canadians and 75% of Brits and Australians having passports. We’ve since risen to around 45%—but the question remains. Why are we innately averse to international travel?
Blake Snow lists a number of excellent reasons here at Paste Magazine—but it still hurts to look at the statistics, especially knowing that the American travelers I’ve met in every corner of the world have been just as curious, adventurous and open-minded as those from other countries.
I’d say once we’re out there, we’re just as good at travel as anyone else—so why don’t more Americans take vacations outside the States?
Maybe the rest of the world feels like too much of a challenge. There are new cultural rules to learn, new ways of living, new languages to speak. The US is vast and there’s so much to see—and maybe that makes it easy to neglect everything outside it, as if we lived on a different planet…
And maybe we all need a DNA test to put our heads straight.
Every time I leave the United States, I’m leaving my current home behind—but I’m also stepping back into the world that made me. I am the latest member of a huge family of travelers stretching back millions of years—and there’s absolutely nothing unusual about that because we’re all members of that family.
Just imagine, all those stories—all now lost to us, except for the glimpses we can get through the strands of our DNA.
Thanks to these comprehensive (and absolutely fascinating) reports, I now have new reasons to explore parts of the world I’ve spent too little time in—and they even tell me where my existing DNA relatives are living right now.
Literally, cousins I never knew I had.
Dear Americans: The Travel is In Your DNA
If your background is similar to mine, your ancestral roots cross oceans. You would have the most amazing adventures if you chased them (which is what I intend to do, now I know the truth about my heritage.)
I’ve devoted my life—and this entire blog—to helping people manifest their dreams of traveling the world and living more passionate and fulfilled lives. So if you need help getting started, you’re in the right place. (Here are some of my best travel tips.)
But before starting to travel, you should decide where to travel—and a DNA test from 23andMe can point you in the right direction.
So, What Happens Next?
I’m genetically European—and now I have a whole new family to get in touch with.
This couldn’t fit into my plans any better since I’ve been looking for a good excuse to explore Europe a bit better. Now I can do it with the help of my family tree, asking all my living relatives about their parents and grandparents, and diving into documentary records to see what I can find…
But for now, 23andMe’s Ancestry Service has presented me with a DNA travel to-do list:
If you’re wondering, Ashkenazi Jews originated in Western Germany and Northern France—and their descendants today live mainly in the United States, Israel, and Russia.
That comes from my father's side. My great-grandparents died in the Holocaust, and my grandparents escaped and settled in Europe sometime in the 1940's (Austria/Poland and then Italy), before moving to Israel. The rest comes from my mother, though I already know that “British & Irish” really means Scottish & Irish.
In other words, I have the whole of Europe on this list—plus Russia and Israel.
I haven’t worked out the details, or even where to start—but this is already feeling like the mother (and father, and grandfather…) of all travel adventures!
So now I'm left with an even bigger question…where to first?
Any Europeans (or anyone, for that matter) want to chime in with recommendations? Let me know in the comments below!