My junior year of high school, our family and some friends went on a Christmas break trip to the Caribbean. I vividly remember walking back into my English class our first day back.
“Oh my God,” a girl I sort of knew gasped. “You're so tan. Andrew, you're Tandrew!” That nickname stuck for the remainder of high school.
I wasn't upset with it. The nickname was accurate. For a white boy with thick ancestral roots in England, I could get awfully tan. It's a luxury I took for granted until I met people who caked inches of sunscreen on themselves and still ended up as red as a chili pepper.
It was also confusing. My maternal grandmother, who had proven quite the genealogical researcher through Ancestry.com, always relived tales she'd discovered about our ancestors from the British Isles. We'd often discuss at family dinners where - or when - this “tan” gene popped into our family lineage. After all, the English may be great seafarers, but they're not known for their dark skin tones.
When I started getting playfully accused of going to tanning salons (I have never done that), I decided to find out why my British ancestry permitted me to get so tan.
First, the science.
Your ability to tan is based on your body's production of melanin. When your skin comes in to contact with harmful UV rays from the sun, your body kicks melanin production into high-gear, turning your skin dark and protecting you (somewhat) from the sun.
But evolutionary speaking, humans who migrated to the colder, northern climates didn't need as much melanin to survive. That partially explains different skin colors, and also why people from various races can spend a day at the beach together and all walk away with different degrees of a tan or a burn; their bodies produce melanin at different rates. (Interestingly enough, Australia and New Zealand, full of white Europeans living close to the equator, have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world.)
So what gives?
On my birthday, I asked my mom to gift me the Ancestry.com DNA test - you've probably seen the ads on TV. I figured there must be something else lurking in my DNA that had yet to be discovered.
When the results came back, I was stunned. According to the test, my English ancestry registered at just 4%. What?! Had my life been a lie? Considering all the stories I had heard, I was more than surprised at the results. Check out the map below, along with the numbers.
- Europe West (dark blue shade): 59%
- Scandinavia (light blue shade): 18%
- Ireland (green shade): 11%
- Great Britain (yellow circle): 4%
- Iberian Peninsula (orange circle): 4%
- Italy/Greece (red circle): 2%
- European Jewish (light green circle): <1%
- Europe East (pink circle): <1%
Racially speaking, I was hardly English at all. Instead, nearly two thirds of my ancestry came from Western Europe, which includes France and Germany. As it turns out, I had neglected to consider my father's side of the genealogical spectrum, which had gone far less-researched and added a heavy dose of German blood to my lineage. I also found some Spanish, along with a dash of Italian and Greek, which could be the cause.
Those combinations take my DNA farther away from the British Isles, and help explain where the tanner skin comes from. It's also, as with all things DNA, a result of chance. My brother was plucked from the same DNA pool, and doesn't get as tan as I can...although he won't like that I said that.
The whole fiasco, for me, gives me healthy skepticism towards people's certainty about their ethnic make up. Our culture puts a high premium on ethnic identity. “What are you?” is a common question we ask, even among strangers. I used to say “mostly English.” My last name certainly backs that up. But your surname, or where your parents told you you're from, and even where your ancestors lived, won't always give you the whole story, as I learned in my case. At least not when it comes to your DNA.
Now, I usually respond to the “what are you” question by replying “I'm mostly German.” But the more appropriate answer to the question might be “how much time do you have?”