Carolyn Abraham's genetic memoir

Download Flash Player to view this content.

First aired on The Current (12/04/13)

juggler's children.jpg

When it comes to our ancestry, most people are satisfied with photo albums and anecdotes of family lore. But those who want more can now turn to science and genetics for a more complete picture of their family history. The microscopic code written into a single sample of DNA can connect someone with a relative on a distant shore...and it can also unlock family secrets. Carolyn Abraham knows all about the latter: in an effort to discover more about her background, she armed herself with DNA testing kits and criss-crossed the globe using genetics to trace her family tree.

She chronicles her journey in her new book, The Juggler's Children: A Journey Into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. In a recent interview on The Current, she talked about the book and her quest to know more about her ancestors.

Growing up, Abraham only knew bits and pieces about her very mixed cultural background: her parents and grandparents had been born in India, but the family was more European than Indian. "I knew we had some English and some Portuguese and some Dutch, and probably some Russian," she told guest host Laura Lynch. "And then when I was 10 years old I discovered that we may also have some Chinese, and shortly after that discovered that we also had some mysterious ancestral ties to Jamaica."

With such a varied -- and mysterious -- heritage, it's no wonder that Abraham was curious. "I remember many times going home and asking my parents, 'So, what are we?'" she said. "They seemed to be a little bit uncomfortable answering that question, because it wasn't simple. My father would say 'We're Eurasian,' and I remember going to the family atlas and saying, 'Where is Eurasia?'"

Those questions lingered with Abraham into her adult life as a science writer at the Globe and Mail. When the human genome was mapped, Abraham interviewed the biologist Craig Venter (he mapped the first private human genome -- his own), and he told her that his genetic map led to him learning interesting facts about his ancestry. "It wasn't that he had seen biological proof of our evolution from primal creatures, but that he had been able to see certain changes in DNA code associated with places, like Western Europe, for example," said Abraham. "I tuned out for a moment, thinking, 'Could I do this? Would I be able to find out whether or not we did have a biological connection to China?'"

At the time, mapping the human genome was prohibitively expensive. But Abraham gave birth to her first child a couple of years later, and she vowed that she would have an answer for when her daughter began to ask the inevitable "what are we" question. Fortunately, science sometimes moves quickly, and by that time it had become considerably more affordable to do genetic testing to look at one's ancestry.

And thus the quest began, a quest that involved asking a lot of her relatives for cheek swabs.

"For me what was very crucial to this search was the Y chromosome. I was lucky in the sense that the big mysteries I wanted to solve had to do with men, great-grandfathers," said Abraham. "All men carry a Y chromosome. They inherit it from their fathers...almost unchanged. The only mutations that it carries are those that spring up in the man who carries it and passes it's like a genetic signature."

The juggler of the book's title is Abraham's great-grandfather John Abraham. She grew up knowing very little about him, only that he might have been Chinese, that someone had given him the name John Abraham in southern India, where he had arrived as a juggler in a circus, and that he had disappeared.

To find out more, Abraham needed the Y chromosome. So she went to her father. "My father carries his paternal grandfather's Y chromosome," she said. "He had a direct biological link to the juggler."

She had a sample of his DNA tested and the results proved her theories about their lineage. "When the results came back we travelled to south India and looked at the record books," she said. "I had already seen in my grandfather those features, but it was something to have biology confirm that."

Related links: