Catching up with distant relatives over the Christmas and New Year’s break often raises questions about who we are, and where we come from. Andre Chumko looks at the ways Kiwis can trace their ancestry.
If you didn’t already know; New Zealand has a society of genealogists.
Manager Barbara Haughey says the group exists to assist and encourage people with their own family research. They have a dedicated and expert team of about 400 volunteers across the country who can point people in the right direction, whether it is archives, databases, websites, books, newspapers or other publications.
Original documents are often the key to the “all-consuming” task of tracing your history, Haughey says.
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Her advice is to start with yourself, then confirm your parents – if you know who they are – through birth certificates before methodically going back generation by generation.
It is important to verify everything, as documents could have false information on them.
The society can also help someone interpret or figure out what to do next if they have had a DNA test.
“For most people it’s a curiosity of where they’ve come from. Some like to come in, but once they start finding people they just want to find more and go back as far as they can,” Haughey says.
“Then other people get tied up in the stories of why people came here in the first place. It all depends on what you’re interested in.”
WHERE TO FIND DOCUMENTS
The Department of Internal Affairs has a tonne of resources available to people tracking their ancestry.
A spokeswoman describes them as the “guardians” of New Zealand’s treasures and history, held at both the National Library and Archives New Zealand in Wellington.
Most research can be done online, But for those in the capital, volunteers are also on-site to help. The department receives hundreds of inquiries every year.
Some of the documents you can see online or request include historical births, deaths and marriages – this comes with a $33 charge, with orders taking up to eight working days to process.
You can also ask for some vaccination registers, notices of intention to marry, coroners’ inquests, divorce records, probate and other estate records, and electoral rolls.
Papers Past is a place where you can find news reports about births, deaths and marriages.
The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, which part of the National Library, holds millions of items including unpublished material, diaries, books, manuscripts, photos, paintings, maps, letters, personal papers, oral histories and sound recordings.
Most items are available to view only in person in Wellington. However, some items can be requested through your local library.
USING ANCESTRY WEBSITES
Ancestry websites are an increasingly popular alternative to the sometimes more laborious task of tracing your genealogy through immigration and identity documents.
The Ancestry.com website, launched its service in New Zealand in 2007, is the largest family history website in the world, its DNA expert Brad Argent says.
What is interesting about Kiwis’ interest in genealogy is that we have a tendency to “over-index” for family history, more so than other countries, Argent says.
“We know that we come from somewhere else. New Zealand, much like Australia, is a country built on immigration … there’s a background desire to understand where that other place is.”
There are two core services the website offers – its search function, which enables people to look for records of ancestors; and its DNA function, where a saliva sample is provided in a tube, sent off to a laboratory and analysed.
That sample then gives you an ethnicity make-up estimate, which tells you where your ancestors come from, and also connects you with others who have taken the test.
Some records can be accessed for free, but a monthly subscription gives greater access. The DNA service is a one-off purchase.
The benefit of the website, Argent says, is its convenience . You can do it from home and log in at your leisure.
Before doing anything, people should talk to their parents and grandparents, ask them questions, and write down any information they find out.
“Once they’re gone, their stories are gone too,” Argent says.
The website’s customers skew overall 45 and up, but the DNA product often skews slightly younger because the science factor appeals to a younger audience, and there isn’t any work required other than providing a sample.
Another big player in the online DNA market is the 23AndMe website.
Its ancestry service offers an ethnic composition, as well as giving information about how much Neanderthal DNA you have inherited.
You can also trace parts of your ancestry to a specific group of individuals from more than 1000 years ago, and compare the genetic similarities and differences with your relatives.
It also has a health ancestry service, where you can find out things like genetic health risks, carrier status, and traits, but this isn’t available to Kiwis.
“Knowing this information has been life-changing for many of our customers. It can help fill in major gaps in their lineage, confirm what they already knew, or introduce them to family they never knew existed,” a spokeswoman says.
IS IT SAFE TO GIVE DNA AWAY?
The question which might be on your mind – is it safe to provide your saliva to a company? The answer is that it’s a personal choice.
23AndMe says customer privacy and security are “crucial” to its service.
Personal information and genetic data are stored in “walled-off segregated computing environments”, and all connections to the 23AndMe computing environment use strong encryption, and require multi-factor authentication.
Furthermore, unless you consent to store or “bio-bank” your sample, saliva samples and DNA are destroyed after the lab completes the analysis. You can update your preferences on your account settings once the sample has completed processing.
Argent says that when genealogical websites first launched, there was a lot of questions about where information was being stored, who had access, and how much control the customer had. But time has meant people are better educated and informed.
Dr Nic Rawlence, lecturer in ancient DNA from the University of Otago, says providing a saliva swab is non-invasive.
But people should be wary of any medical claims, as ancestry websites are devoid of medical experience, he says. Anybody concerned about medical claims should contact their doctor and asked to be referred to a genetic counsellor.
As for the police or state authorities being able to access your genetic data, they’re not allowed to without a warrant and probable cause, Rawlence says.
Consumers should have the right to ask for their sample to be destroyed once the genetic ancestry testing is complete, and be able to control who sees their genetic data.
Rawlence does not recommend loading ancestry DNA profiles onto publicly searchable databases, as you “lose all control” over who has access to it.
“Once you do ancestry DNA testing you lose your genetic anonymity, ” Rawlence says.
“That being said, if you choose not to do ancestry DNA testing, you have no doubt lost it already, as a relative will have done ancestry DNA testing, and you share a certain percentage of DNA with your relatives.”
The right way to go about tracing your ancestors ultimately is up to you.
As Rawlence says, DNA testing can’t be interpreted in isolation. Traditional documents can be erroneous or falsified, and DNA tracking only makes sense in light of family history.
But these are just two tools in the tool box.
WHY ARE WE INTERESTED?
Argent says people are interested in “what accidents in history have happened” to put them where they are today.
People start out looking to tell the story of their ancestors, but end up telling the stories of themselves, he says.
“We live in a world where our ancestry is highly curated. It’s curated by us, it’s curated by the media, there’s a whole bunch of different things that impact how we see ourselves and how we reflect ourselves back to the world.”
Tracking ancestry helps people understand themselves, and subsequently the way they explain and present themselves to the world.
“Decades ago, people would do it almost as a way of venerating our ancestors, and it was almost as if it was some familial obligation – we did it because it kept the memories of our ancestors alive,” Argent says.
“I think there’s an element of that, but I think part of it is we’re doing it because we’re trying to find a connection to a grand narrative, to a bigger story.”