Artifact DNA: Save Those Envelopes from Your Grandparents

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

My family has a big collection of old envelopes, dating back to 1934, from assorted and unfortunately deceased relatives that we are dying to have DNA-tested. But we learned about ‘artifact DNA’ just before everything was either shutting down or put on hold in March.

The process is (in layperson’s terms, which is all we know at this point) to extract DNA from any traces of saliva remaining from an envelope seal and stamps. Then, a DNA profile can be generated and matched to others, just as if that person is still alive and did a regular test with a company like Ancestry, MyHeritage or LivingDNA.

That should provide more DNA matches, further back in time, to help identify the ancestors you have in common with them.

It sounds like a promising technology, especially if you’ve already gone as far back as you can in tracing your family tree with historical records and your currently-living family members’ DNA, and hit a brick wall.

Or in our case, three or four walls, because we’ve got two great-grandparents born to single mothers and unknown fathers (or unidentified in available records, at least) — plus two on our Irish side from areas where the baptism, marriage and death documents are sparse before the 1860s.

I know 1860 sounds like a very long time ago, but not if your most recent ancestors were all born to parents who were about as old as biologically possible to have children! For us, that’s less than three generations back.

So we were thrilled to hear about artifact testing. But when we checked the website of a recommended provider, ToTheLetterDNA, it said they had to put envelope testing on hold until closer to the end of the year. (They were continuing to test other types of items, such as old hairbrushes that are likely to retain extractable DNA, but we don’t have any of those).

We then waited until early December, took photos of an envelope from one of our highest-priority departed relatives and emailed them to an artifact-testing company for assessment. We heard back some good news, and so-so news: that the envelope looks like a reasonably good candidate; but that they are continuing to put their testing on hold.

In the meantime, backlogs must be continuing to accumulate from pent-up demand— but presumably this will also help make it a viable market, and fund further research to bring the cost down. The latest pricing we saw (which may be outdated by now, or by the time testing resumes), was the US dollar equivalent of about $400 to extract the DNA, plus $600 to build the actual profile.

We’re hoping this ramps up soon, because most of the envelopes we have were in storage in a basement for a pretty long time before we knew about them, and to ensure they’re kept in a cool, dry area.

But they seem to be in good shape, despite the fact that a few critters used to live down there with them. If we do eventually get them tested, we don’t want the ethnicity results to come back as 20% Irish, 80% rodent!

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