I Got It From My Momma?
What’s Your Heritage? Ever heard the song Turns out the lyrics ring truer than you might think
T he bond we have with our mom, which we identify in our personality and characteristics, isn’t an accident – it’s written in our DNA. Each woman carries a unique code that she inherited from her mother.
Genetically, you carry more of your mother’s genes than your father’s. One part of your DNA is inherited from your mother only – it’s called mitochondrial DNA. Males have mitochondrial DNA and a Y chromosome, so they can trace both their maternal and paternal ancestry. Females, who have mitochondrial DNA but no Y chromosome, can only trace their maternal ancestry.
Biology 101: DNA can help tell your story
Half of our hereditary material is passed on to us from our mother, the other half from our father. Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, which contain genetic information. Twenty-two of these pairs (one chromosome per pair from the mother and the father) are known as ‘autosomes’; the remaining pair determines your sex, and is made up of the female XX and male XY chromosomes.
Only women pass down mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to the next generation. The mitochondria are known as ‘the powerhouse’ of the cell, converting food into energy for other cells to use. Why do only women pass it down? When a sperm cell fuses with an egg during fertilisation, the sperm’s mitochondrial sheath falls away and dies – so the embryo will only contain the surviving mitochondria from the mother’s egg. The idea that the mitochondria contain the only information in our genes that can be used to determine where we come from is central to genealogical DNA testing.
Tracing your story through DNA testing
Many studies hold that paternal mtDNA is never transmitted to offspring – so the mitochondrial cells in your eggs have been passed down via generations of women to your mom, and then to you. Mitochondria are not the only thing you inherit: there are markers and differences in these genes that get passed down, too.
Through DNA testing, the markers are compared against a huge database of existing DNA. If your markers are also found in a group of people concentrated somewhere on Earth, then that’s where your maternal ancestors are likely from. The geographical location where you share common DNA with ancestors is called a ‘ haplogroup’.
Three COSMO team members took the National Health Laboratory Service DNA test (offered by the Division of Human Genetics) to find out their maternal ancestry this Heritage Month.
Ashleigh Engel, 24 Social media manager mtDNA haplogroup: L0d1 (L0d1b2b) – Africa MOST RECENT MATERNAL ANCESTORS FOUND IN Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa and Angola, Khoisan populations
‘From a young age, I have been taught about my father’s heritage. My family has done extensive research on the surname “Engel”; as a result, I know all 11 of my grandfather’s siblings, where they come from and their heritage. I was never really told about my mother’s lineage. The only detail I remember is once visiting a farm called Kersgat in the Strandveld region of the Western Cape, which is where my grandmother Jacoba was born – the daughter of a woman with the maiden name Taillard, which I learnt is of French descent. Her father was an October, an illegitimate child of a Cohen (a Jew from Cape Town). The Taillards were one of the more well-o families in the Strandveld area – through generations, the families hired out the land to other farmers (and still do so). The Taillards came to Africa from France in the 1600s when they were promised land, and settled in the Strandveld area.
‘My mother was born in Elim, a small town in the Strandveld. Her mother came from Spanjaardskloof (farmland in the Strandveld) and met my grandfather in Elim. They got married and raised their family there. Both my parents spent a large part of their life there and, as a child, I also spent many holidays with my
‘Heritage affects my relationship with my mom – being Greek to us means family and food!’
grandparents in Elim. Being in the town always brings me a sense of peace – and nostalgia, because all my grandparents have since passed away. It ills me with pride because the town is rich in heritage. It has the oldest working wheat mill in South Africa, and is an area covered with fynbos, hosting its own annual festival. It also has the only slave monument in South Africa. My family is dedicated to visiting Elim on special dates such as Easter, Heritage Day and Christmas. It’s when we get to connect with more people who are also family, and who “trek” back to Elim to pay their respects to those who have passed and to celebrate those still here.
‘Heritage de initely plays a large part in the relationship I have with my mom. Our family is deeply invested in sharing information about where we come from, and we often reminisce about shared memories. My grandmother worked as a domestic in Cape Town when she was young; when she started her own family, she taught my mother and her siblings that they need to work hard and grab the opportunities she did not have. Like my grandmother, my mother constantly reminds my sisters and me that we need to work and be independent.
‘Even though none of us wants to admit it, as we age we ind ourselves becoming more like our mother. I absolutely see my mom in me, despite our dierent personalities. My two elder sisters seem to have adopted my father’s extroverted personality – but while my mother is more introverted, I have taken on some of her softer mannerisms with a touch of my dad’s “fun guy” vibes. I’m calm like her, and I don’t get fazed easily – unlike my dad, who can get riled up and very “passionate” about certain topics. (I see this in my sisters too.)
‘Having my maternal DNA tested has been very valuable because I have only ever known about my father and his father’s heritage. It’s mostly what’s been celebrated, highlighted and appreciated in our family through the years. But the discussion of my maternal heritage opened up a new conversation between my mother and me. I had no idea her maternal grandmother had French heritage, and that her paternal grandfather had Khoi heritage.’
Christy Chilimigras, 25 Sex writer mtDNA haplogroup: HV (HV21) – Asia/Europe MOST RECENT MATERNAL ANCESTORS FOUND IN Calabria, Sicily, Tuscany, Sardinia, Bulgaria, southern Belarus, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, Greece, Cyprus and Romania
‘I grew up being told that my great-grandparents on my mom’s side came to South Africa from Greece. My mom identi ies as South African, and so do we (her kids). As much as we identify as South African, being Greek is a part of our identity in terms of family dynamics. Culturally it has implications for how we engage with one another as a family.
‘Heritage aects my relationship with my mom – being Greek to us means family and food! It’s a huge part of my identity: I have traditions I share with my mom, my aunt, my grandmother and all the women in my family. Being able to cook together and have conversations about our culture and our heritage is important to us. It’s a big part of all our lives. In a way, my relationship with my mom is de ined by being Greek, much as it is with many of the women in my family.
‘I inherited my favourite parts of myself from my mother: resilience, gentleness, fragility. My mom taught me that there’s beauty in fragility – a lovely thing to learn. We know we have to be ierce and we have to be tough. This can be hard – and hardening – but my mom taught me that it’s okay to have soft edges with the right people.
‘Seeing these results was really amazing. I shared them in the “Girls Family” WhatsApp group with my mom, my aunt and my sister, and it was a really special moment. My grandfather on my mom’s side always joked that we had Asian heritage and we never took him seriously – but it turns out he was right! It was almost like a bonding experience, and it made me think so much of all the generations of women who came before me.’
Busang Senne, 24 Content producer mtDNA haplogroup: L0d1 (L0d1b2b) – Africa MOST RECENT MATERNAL ANCESTORS FOUND IN Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa and Angola, Khoisan populations
‘To be black is to have a multitude of stories and experiences and timelines that don’t always look like a straight line. My lineage is a ected by immigration, forced removals and the violence of apartheid that separated entire communities. I am Tswana on my dad’s side and Zulu on my mom’s; the exact history of where we all came from is largely unrecorded. For me, my lineage is archived in other ways: I can see it in my mother, aunt, grandmother and sister. I have a complicated relationship with identity, heritage and culture – but just because my family tree is fractured doesn’t mean I don’t know exactly where home is. For me, home is the women in my family.
‘We have always been a family of strong matriarchs. That inluence is why I am the way I am: unapologetic and unashamed of what I want and who I am. My mother is more compromising and my sister is more measured than I could ever hope to be, but as much as we are mirrors of one another, there is a balance too. We share many subtle similarities and nuances. My favourite shared trait is that we all have the same distinct wrists with a slightly protruding bone on each side – it’s said to be a common trait of Zulu women.
‘The bond I have with my mom is kind of like the tradition of oral storytelling of the southeastern Bantuspeaking communities, where narratives, lessons and ideas are passed down from generation to generation. I come from a family of storytellers; it’s a huge part of our heritage. My mom and the women before her gave me courage, strength and compassion. I also got my whimsical side from my mom – we share an almostchildlike curiosity and mischievousness. I got a lot of my personal eccentricities and quirks from her. We may all be di erent but eccentricities are pretty much ingrained in our DNA. There’s a story in our eyes and the unique curve of our wrists, and it was empowering to imagine those threads being tied to my story in the results of the DNA test.
‘I also think we carve out our own traditions, and pass those on to our daughters. Heritage is luid; it depends on the person. So much of your belief systems and rituals can change. Your ancestors carried a story that’s been passed down to you but there’s always space for new narratives. You have roots – which means you can grow! If I have a daughter one day, I hope she has our wrists and our courage; but I also hope to impart a new chapter to our HERstory.’