Wednesday, August 29, 2012

DNA Debate

I attended an interesting lecture last week featuring the administrator of the New Mexico DNA Project. I first spoke with Angel Cervantes after receiving the results of my DNA test back in May. He now has nearly 1,500 DNA samples, including my own, in a database that makes up the New Mexico Project.

It was Cervantes who told me that my Y-DNA, which comes from my father, his father, his father, and so on, matches the genetic markers of the vast Chavez family that descends directly from Pedro Duran y Chaves, one of the first Chaves to come to New Mexico in 1600 and considered the progenitor of the Chavez family here. It was a shock to learn that my paternal ancestry is Chaves, and not Gallegos, although I was already confident that Gallegos was an adopted name. I just didn’t know my paternal bloodline was Chaves, just as my maternal bloodline descends from the same Pedro Duran y Chaves. Or does it?

Last week’s lecture brought into focus a debate that is currently simmering in the genealogy community. On one side of the debate, as Cervantes explains it, are traditional genealogists, who rely primarily on written records and oral histories of our ancestors, as tools to track family trees. On the other side of the debate are true believers in using the science of genetics as the primary source for genealogy research.

Cervantes actually describes three levels of genealogy: Traditional genealogy, genetic genealogy and anthropological genetic genealogy. He talks about starting with traditional genealogy and moving up from there. At the same time, he believes genetic genealogy has come so far in the past decade that it should probably be the starting point for research. His study goes a step further, using DNA to study ancestry of groups of people, going back thousands of years.

I have heard others describe three facets of genealogy – each as important as the other: Written records, oral history and genetic genealogy.

Both approaches seem reasonable to me. Apparently, other genealogists, more experienced than me, aren’t so sure. I saw some of the skepticism firsthand in Cervantes’ lecture. One gentleman who was quite confident in his own research of is family tree, was dubious and challenged Cervantes’ certainty of the value of DNA testing. Cervantes says DNA results are black and white, with little or no possibility of human error. The gentleman, while acknowledging the existence of errors in record-keeping sometimes found in religious and government documents, still preferred those records, many of which have been scrutinized by generations of researchers.

For my part, I am always a little skeptical any time you have to rely on any form of interpretation of results. That can apply to DNA results, as well as 400-year-old church records. I have been frustrated with inaccurate records, missing records and fuzzy memories of my relatives. Then again, I’ve made my own share of mistakes in my interpretation of the records. DNA testing is still relatively new, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, although I am excited by the potential as more people embrace it. I won’t dispute the fact that my DNA test produced 37 very specific markers, which so far, are an exact match with one other person of the 1,500 tested. That person is named Chavez. One other person, which could potentially be a match, is also a Chavez. But my DNA is also a close, but not exact match with another Gallegos, a Jaramillo, a Garcia and a Martinez. I have contacted most of those people and all have been told, like me, that we are part of what’s called Haplogroup I1 and that we descend from Pedro Duran y Chaves.  

One of the interesting dilemmas I’m seeing with DNA testing is the reluctance of many people, including veteran genealogists, to give it a try. Aside of a distrust of the technology, some people may be afraid of the results.

Cervantes estimates that 30 percent of the nearly 1,500 DNA samples in the New Mexico Project revealed, um, unexpected results. Basically, three in 10 people tested were like me. They found out their surname doesn’t match with what their DNA results suggest – or prove, depending on your view.

Cervantes said many people get really sad or really angry with him when he delivers that type of news. He was pleasantly surprised with my reaction and my open-mindedness after learning about my Chavez connection. But while I strive to be open-minded, I pointed out that I already knew that I probably had a different surname, so it wasn’t quite as shocking to me.

After the lecture, I gave more thought to the shock factor of finding out the surname you’ve lived with – for 43 years in my case, and for much longer for most of the genealogists I’ve encountered – isn’t really your name. I think most people would experience some sense of shock, wouldn’t they? It’s just a name. But for many, it’s an identity and a connection to the people who came before you. I still consider my identity to be primarily Gallegos and Chavez, whatever that means. My Great-Grandfather, Luis Gallegos, apparently adopted the Gallegos name with his older brother when his mother, Francisquita married Manuel Gallegos. They had three legitimate children together. I may never figure out who Luis’ father was. His baptismal record says Juan Bautista Cordoba. I suspect it may have been a Chavez. In any case, he lived his life as Luis Gallegos, and four generations of Gallegos have followed his bloodline.

Still, I thought about my maternal Chavez family line. I’ve confirmed the connections using various records. And all of my cousins and uncles – most of all, my late Grandfather – are strongly connected with their surname. I’ve thought about recruiting my great-uncle or one of my uncles to take a Y-DNA test, just to get my Grandpa Louie’s DNA into the database. I wonder how that compares to my supposed paternal Chavez connection. But what if my uncle’s DNA resulted in yet another surprise – a connection to another surname? Now that would be a shock to me, and more so to my mom and my uncles and cousins. Would they resent me for taking them down that path? Or would they deny, or question the conclusion?

I guess genealogy wouldn’t be as interesting if it was easy and without controversy. And maybe I’ll continue down this path for decades to come, only to have my research and conclusions proven wrong by my daughters or grandchildren, using even better technology. Quién sabe?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Gil,
    My DNA haplogroup R1b1a2 what is yours?