“Everybody, within a family archive, also has a DNA archive,” says Maarten Larmuseau, a forensic geneticist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. These can help people answer profound questions about their family history, he says, “and that is very, very cool.”
Although Haas did her work for research purposes, private companies have been trying to get in on the hustle. MyHeritage, the DNA testing company, announced in 2018 that it would be jumping into the business of commercial artifact testing. An Australian company, Totheletter DNA, was founded in 2018 to offer DNA testing of artifacts “from your passed loved-ones to enhance your genealogical research” for a cost of over $2,000.
But what was once envisioned as an explosion in artifact testing has petered into more of a slow burn. A number of factors have prevented it from becoming as big as commercial DNA test kits: it’s costly, it involves tampering with or destroying potentially sentimental family heirlooms, and there is little guarantee that it will be successful. For example, when relying on DNA extracted from saliva, you’re taking a gamble that the sender was the one who licked the envelope flap or the stamp, which is not always the case—an old practice was to wet stamps on common pads at post offices. “The running joke in my lab is that if we check all these stamps, you will see that all the children are in fact children of postmen,” says Larmuseau.
Rather, the practice might turn out to be more useful to answer predetermined specific questions, such as in the case of Renc and Arles’ family mystery, or to solve cold cases. And it might have an expiry date: The invention of self-adhesive stamps means that using saliva to stick a stamp is a dying practice, after all.
As genetic genealogy is increasingly being used to unravel family mysteries, it also opens up a big can of worms. For one: Don’t the dead deserve some privacy? The deceased, due to their complicated circumstances, can never give consent to the testing. “The notion that you can take the DNA of someone who lived in a time before cars, who could never have even anticipated the notion that their private life, or their private relationships, or their child born out of a relationship outside their marriage, could have been discovered in this way—that’s stunning,” says Libby Copeland, a journalist and author of the book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are . “You can uncover all sorts of stories that people would not have wanted to come to light.”
While in this case, genetic testing was able to disprove a family scandal, “the lion's share of how this is playing out is the reverse,” says Copeland. For her book, Copeland interviewed people who discovered something shocking about their own family through using commercial DNA testing kits, and how they had to deal with the gravity of that knowledge, which included affairs, incest, and surprises about their ethnicity. Yes, you could find a cousin you never knew about, but you could also accidentally dig up dirt on your great-aunt’s secret romance.