SAVANNAH, Ga. — (Feb. 1, 2004) — After four or more years of answering technical e-mails, reading drafts of new books, and enrolling farflung subjects in ethnic population studies, Donald Panther-Yates opened a Web site for his research specialty, the use of genetics in genealogy. DNA Consulting is believed to be the first commercial Internet service for individuals interested in pursuing the historical and anthropological interpretation of DNA tests. The new page was uploaded for business on February 24, with headquarters in Georgia, where Yates works as a college instructor, and “virtual officing” across several states and foreign countries.
“People would spend sometimes a lot of money on a DNA test,” says Yates, “get their test scores back and then what?” He says many were left wondering “what the numbers and matches meant.” He received e-mails from over 200 members of the mysterious group of Appalachian families known as Melungeons. And the guest book of Panther’s Lodge, a Cherokee-Choctaw genealogy site started by Yates in 1998, is filled with pleas for help from descendants of American Indians with brickwalls in their search for relatives and tribal affiliation.
DNA testing emerged in the last three years as a good way to supplement traditional paper-driven compilations of family trees and is widely regarded as a breakthrough technology in addressing such vexed questions as the identity and culture of the earliest Americans and the peopling of the New World. The new science received a boost from the 1997 article in the magazine Nature on the gene type of Old Testament priests — today, people bearing the last name Cohen, says Yates.
Geneticists are becoming increasingly adept at tracing lineages and mapping human genes, while historians and others in the humanities have the answers to population growth, the spread of different cultures, domination of one people by another, migration and emigration, but nowhere do the two bodies of knowledge seem to intersect efffectively, says Yates. “Either the scientists fail to appreciate history, or the historians are mystified by all the new science.” DNA Consulting was formed to explore historical implications of genetic patterns using a sound grasp of ancient, medieval and early modern history, training in linguistics, and a broad view of intercultural relations.
“Halakic or traditional Jewish law, in general, has no rulings about the meaning or usefulness or validity of gene testing,” notes Yates. “So there is another gap between the past and today’s emerging tools and technologies that needs to be bridged.” Jewish genealogy is another of DNA Consulting’s specialties.