In 1885, Xaver, a young Austrian blacksmith, left home to make it big. After finding a new job abroad, Xaver, a gentile, fell in love with Dina, the 17-year-old Catholic-Jewish daughter of his boss. He was subsequently fired. But that was just the beginning of this family drama.
Dina ran away from home to be with Xaver and found lodging and work in the home of Ron, a 30-year-old Jewish factory owner. In 1887, she gave birth to a son, named Renc, believed to be fathered by Ron. Renc received Jewish rituals and was baptized in a Catholic church.
But Dina and Xaver remained together, and after Xaver had achieved some success in his career, the two married in 1889. Xaver acknowledged the then one-and-a-half-year-old Renc as his stepson, and Ron lent support to the family. Xaver and Dina went on to have three more children, including a son named Arles. During World War II, Renc’s full Jewish ancestry was kept a secret, while he and his relations lived in fear of being deported to the concentration camps.
The secret of his paternity was maintained publicly for years, but among the family the true identity of Renc’s father was passed down from generation to generation.
Fast forward to May 2017, when Cordula Haas, a forensic geneticist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, was approached with an unusual request. Renc and Arles’ descendants wanted to verify that Ron was indeed Renc’s true father. The family offered up cheek swabs from living descendants of Dina, Renc, and Arles for DNA analysis, and—at the prompting of Haas—some postcards that had been sent by Renc and Ron that might hold their DNA in the remnants of the saliva used to paste the stamps.
Solving kinship cases is a common task in forensic genetics, but this case was a little more complex than Haas was used to. For a year and a half, she and her team tried to confirm the story, to no avail. By October 2018, they had thrown in the towel. But then, in March 2020, the family returned, this time with more heirlooms. They had found some more old postcards that had been sent by Arles on a business tour in 1922. The scientists compared the DNA found under these cards’ stamps with the DNA found on postcards sent by Renc while he was fighting in World War I and on postwar trips. They found common Y chromosomal lineage, which meant that the two brothers shared the same father. After more than a century, the family had an end to their paternity drama: Xaver, not Ron, was Renc’s dad.
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With the consent of the family, Haas and her colleagues detailed their investigation in a paper published this month in the journal Forensic Science International. (All the names were changed, at the request of the family.) And while it might seem like no more than an amusing end to a family mystery, extracting centuries-old DNA from artifacts—a licked envelope flap, hair from an old brush—was once considered the Next Big Thing in genetic genealogy. Its promise lies in offering anybody the opportunity to gain precious insights into long-deceased ancestors and loved ones, to look further back into their family tree, and to potentially reunite with existing relatives.
“Everybody, within a family archive, also has a DNA archive,” says Maarten Larmuseau, a forensic geneticist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. These can help people answer profound questions about their family history, he says, “and that is very, very cool.”
Although Haas did her work for research purposes, private companies have been trying to get in on the hustle. MyHeritage, the DNA testing company, announced in 2018 that it would be jumping into the business of commercial artifact testing. An Australian company, Totheletter DNA, was founded in 2018 to offer DNA testing of artifacts “from your passed loved-ones to enhance your genealogical research” for a cost of over $2,000.
But what was once envisioned as an explosion in artifact testing has petered into more of a slow burn. A number of factors have prevented it from becoming as big as commercial DNA test kits: it’s costly, it involves tampering with or destroying potentially sentimental family heirlooms, and there is little guarantee that it will be successful. For example, when relying on DNA extracted from saliva, you’re taking a gamble that the sender was the one who licked the envelope flap or the stamp, which is not always the case—an old practice was to wet stamps on common pads at post offices. “The running joke in my lab is that if we check all these stamps, you will see that all the children are in fact children of postmen,” says Larmuseau.
Rather, the practice might turn out to be more useful to answer predetermined specific questions, such as in the case of Renc and Arles’ family mystery, or to solve cold cases. And it might have an expiry date: The invention of self-adhesive stamps means that using saliva to stick a stamp is a dying practice, after all.
As genetic genealogy is increasingly being used to unravel family mysteries, it also opens up a big can of worms. For one: Don’t the dead deserve some privacy? The deceased, due to their complicated circumstances, can never give consent to the testing. “The notion that you can take the DNA of someone who lived in a time before cars, who could never have even anticipated the notion that their private life, or their private relationships, or their child born out of a relationship outside their marriage, could have been discovered in this way—that’s stunning,” says Libby Copeland, a journalist and author of the book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are. “You can uncover all sorts of stories that people would not have wanted to come to light.”
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While in this case, genetic testing was able to disprove a family scandal, “the lion's share of how this is playing out is the reverse,” says Copeland. For her book, Copeland interviewed people who discovered something shocking about their own family through using commercial DNA testing kits, and how they had to deal with the gravity of that knowledge, which included affairs, incest, and surprises about their ethnicity. Yes, you could find a cousin you never knew about, but you could also accidentally dig up dirt on your great-aunt’s secret romance.
Copeland realized that, through the popularization of these cheap spit kits, the world is in the midst of a big social experiment, with potentially devastating repercussions. “The people who discover their own genetic origins aren't what they thought are often traumatized by it,” she says. “It's incredibly painful, it's dislocating, and basically their personal narratives are completely disrupted.”
Larmuseau shares Copeland’s concerns about unearthing family secrets. “Even after so many years, you can really have a huge privacy issue, and an impact on descendants today,” he says. He had his own ethical quandary on his hands a few years ago, when he played a role in solving the mysterious death of a Belgian royal. In 1934, King Albert I, the third King of the Belgians, died under mysterious circumstances after supposedly falling off a rock while exercising. With no witnesses to the accident, his death bred many conspiracy theories: that he had been murdered, that the accident was staged.
Using blood-stained leaves that had been collected from the scene, Larmuseau and his colleagues compared it with the DNA of two of the king’s living relatives, and discovered that the blood indeed belonged to Albert I, contradicting the more sinister rumors surrounding his death. Larmuseau’s investigation stopped there. But if he had chosen to dig deeper, he could have, in theory, revealed information about the king’s genetics that might compromise the privacy of the current Belgian royal family. For example, if he had found genetic mutations associated with certain inheritable diseases, it would have revealed that Albert I’s descendants could carry the same mutation. “Ethically, my impression was I didn’t have the right to do it,” he says.But something similar has already occurred elsewhere: Two years after the bones of King Richard III were found under a carpark in Leicester, England, a genetic analysis of his remains unearthed some doubts about the legitimacy of other members of the royal family.
The practice of artifact testing is largely unregulated, a sort of Wild West; theoretically, you could purchase the used hairbrush of a deceased celebrity on Ebay, pay someone to extract the DNA, and dredge some seriously private skeletons from their closet. “There are absolutely no rules about it,” says Larmuseau.
“This whole idea that you can go back and answer questions about the past that was previously a black box, it’s mind blowing,” says Copeland. But just because you can dig through the past doesn’t mean you’ll like what you learn. “What if you don't even know what you're going to find? And what you find is too much for you to bear, and then you can't unknow it?” she asks. “And then on the other hand, it's like, God, it's so cool that we live in this moment where you can crack open your cells and get all these questions answered, or crack open the cells from somebody else that were on some object, like a hairbrush.”
Haas said the family was surprised by their findings but were ultimately glad to know. She laments that nobody knew of Renc’s true ancestry while he lived under the Nazi regime. “At that time,” she says, “it would have made their life easier.”
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