Greeks investigating their roots through DNA testing

Greeks investigating their roots through DNA testing

It all started quite accidentally during a house move in 1994. As she was opening various boxes, Yiota Tourli, then a teenager, came across an envelope that aroused her curiosity. Inside she found evidence that she had been adopted. The papers showed that she had been born in Las Vegas and was given to a Greek migrant couple in the United States as an infant. She made no attempt to locate her biological parents then, but the questions kept mounting as the years went by, and she started wanting to know more about where she came from.

Becoming a mother herself was the trigger. “I needed to know what my son could face in the future. I had no medical history,” she says.

Her adoptive parents told her they found her in a basket on their doorstep with a note saying that her biological parents had been killed in a car crash. She tried to corroborate this story with the help of Anna Laoudis, a Greek-American woman she met online. Their research using newspapers from that time yielded no evidence of such an incident.

Tourli then went to the American authorities and found out that both her mother and her father came from large families. She went back to the internet, communicating with American societies for large families and placing ads on websites for adopted children. She got nothing back. Then, in 2016, she played her last card and sent a saliva sample to a DNA laboratory. A month later she got some unexpected news: The name of one of her biological grandmothers.


Ms. Tourli uses the app of a DNA testing company to see her matches. (Photos: Alexia Tsagkari)

She was 83 years old, with a keen interest in investigating her genealogy. She had drawn up her family tree going back several generations and happened to have sent a DNA sample to the same lab for analysis. “It was pure luck,” Tourli tells Kathimerini from her Athens apartment. “You feel whole when you learn the truth and find out who you are.”

Emerging market

Tourli’s story is by no means unique. In the past few years, an increasing number of people all around the world have been reaching out to private companies that build DNA banks (also drawing data from existing databases such as the 1000 Genomes Projects) in the hope of learning more about their forebears or locating unknown relatives. The first such companies appeared in the early 2000s and most are based in the United States, though there are a few in the United Kingdom, Iceland, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2007, the firm 23andMe charged US$999 for a standard DNA test; competition has now pushed that price down to US$99 (or less if there’s a special offer). The 2012 entry into the market of Ancestry.com was a key development and it is estimated that half of the 12 million people worldwide who have submitted genetic material to such firms so far have used the Utah-based company.

The trend has also spread through the Greek diaspora as second- and third-generation immigrants are turning to such companies in order to put together the puzzle of their personal histories.

Elias Vlanton, a retired history teacher in Washington DC, knew quite a lot about his family history but wanted to learn more. He did two DNA tests at different companies and convinced his sister and his mother – the latter just two weeks before she died at the hospital – to do the same. While on holiday on the Greek island of Kythera earlier this summer, he also collected saliva samples from several cousins.

‘DNA cousins’

Vlanton says that he has already communicated with more than 80 distant cousins with whom he shares some genetic markers. “All of them have discovered they had ancestors at villages and towns close to where my ancestors lived,” he tells Kathimerini.

He talks passionately about his discoveries and lists the 40 “DNA cousins” he found on Kythera. There are another 30 he has traced partially through his great-grandparents, who lived in Smyrna. “My goal is to contact more fourth and fifth cousins in order to find the ancestors we have in common,” he says.


Elias Vlanton with one of his cousins who gave a sample for DNA testing.

Many Greeks who were adopted – legally and illegally – after the Greek civil war and grew up in the US are conducting similar investigations into their backgrounds, of which they know very little.

Nicole Gulledge is a second-generation Greek American who has helped quite a few people like this. She’s among several genealogy volunteers who have created Facebook groups and help in searches free of charge. They interpret the findings of the DNA labs and go through records of births, deaths and marriages, as well as state documents. Gulledge says that some people don’t want to be found because they’re scared that their “new” relative may ask for money. “But what these people are looking for is their roots, to know where they belong,” she says.

There are certain ethical issues, however. Debbie Kennett, an honorary research associate at the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, explains that DNA databanks could undermine the anonymity of sperm donors or reveal well-kept family secrets.

Learning truths

When Ellen Whitehouse started drawing up her family tree, she thought everything she knew was the truth. She knew quite a lot about her mother’s side of the family, who belonged to the Cherokee tribe. There were gaps, however, when it came to her father’s past. There was no record of his birth, just a baptism certificate with the date of birth as 1929. It also listed his parents as being Rosa Panno (a Sicilian who had emigrated to the US in 1909) and Domenico Guttillo, also a Sicilian, who had been killed in 1921 in a Mafia-related incident in Chicago.


Joseph Gutillo with his granddaughter.

The numbers didn’t add up: How could the father have died eight years before the son was born? Whitehouse traveled to Sicily to look for answers but returned empty-handed. Her father, Joseph Guttillo, died in 2006, believing he was Sicilian. “It hurts my heart that my father never knew his real birth parents,” Whitehouse says. A DNA test she did last year revealed close cousins in the southern Peloponnese town of Kalamata. The Greek man she believes was her biological grandfather appears to have lived in Chicago in 1929.

“Unraveling the mystery continues each and every day. Learning of my Greek ancestry has given me the impetus to continue searching for the truth, to find long lost family,” she says. “I definitely need to travel to Greece for research. The DNA test results have opened up a whole new world to us and it is my responsibility to explore this new world and solve the mystery of my father's true heritage and ethnicity.”

Kennett says that the tests are quite reliable when tracing first or second cousins, and should be backed by additional research and paper trails when going further along the branches of the family tree.

The pitfalls

Some companies promise “ethnicity estimates,” which claim to indicate your likely ancestral roots among dozens of ethnicities. “This is the least reliable part of the test,” says Kennett.

Tests she has carried out on herself at three different companies have diverged quite significantly. “The use of the term ‘ethnicity’ is quite misleading, as this has nothing to do with DNA,” says the expert, explaining that the different results that emerge in this category also arise from the different databases used by each company.

Many people send DNA profiles to different companies in order to maximize their chances of a match. Others upload their genetic data on a database called GEDmatch, which is the one used by American authorities last April to track down a serial killer who had eluded arrest for 40 years.


Ms. Tourli found her biological family through DNA testing.

Before tracing her biological grandmother and later her mother, Yiota Tourli had submitted a DNA sample to a smaller company, but without success. Now she keeps in touch with her biological relatives and can’t wait to meet them in person. “It is the adventure of a lifetime. I have learned a lot of truths,” she says.

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