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Where we come from

I received a call the other night from my aunt Joan (one of my mom’s sisters). She was excited because she had just received the results of a DNA analysis designed to trace the roots of her ancestry to specific regions of the world. She and another sister (my other godmother Sandra) are into genealogy.

She had a swab kit done during a free workshop back in January, by African Ancestry, an effort of Dr. Rick Kittles, associate professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University’s Medical Center, and former co-director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University.

Mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited exclusively down the maternal line of a family tree, enables women to do a maternal line trace with this test. Men can do the same on the paternal line with a different test, based on the Y-chromosome.

Kittles is careful to point out on the site that this testing merely confirms (with greater than 95% confidence), where your lineage is. It doesn’t determine race.

There is no test for racial identification. Race is a social construct, not genetically determined. Similarly, ethnicity is more cultural than biological.

With that in mind, this is what aunt Joan found out. Her maternal ancestors (and therefore mine, since the results are the same for everyone in the maternal line) are:


51% Sub-Saharan Africa (she didn’t get any information as to country)
37% European (we have known ancestry in Ireland and England)
12% Native American (likely a NY or Connecticut tribe; we thought Shinnecock, but have not been able to confirm)

Neither of us was surprised by the results, as oral histories in the family and relatives working on the maternal family tree gave us some idea about what we might find (another cousin, tracing back a good ways on my maternal grandfather’s side, recently wrote a book on his work).

Many who take this test are surprised at the results. (USA Today):

DNA evidence has confirmed some family stories but debunked many others. For example, most of the nine black celebrities who underwent genetic testing for the PBS documentary African American Lives believed they were part Native American.

One of those tested, Oprah Winfrey, 52, says on the program that to many African-Americans in her generation, being “a little Indian” was desirable. The two-part documentary, which began running this week, says genetic testing revealed that only two of the nine celebrities tested — Winfrey and comedian-actor Chris Tucker — likely had Native American ancestors.

…About 30% of black Americans who take DNA tests to determine their African lineage prove to be descended from Europeans on their father’s side, says Rick Kittles, scientific director of African Ancestry, a Washington, D.C., company that began offering the tests in 2003. Almost all black Americans whom Kittles has tested descended from African women, he says.

That’s partly why genetic genealogy is “not for the faint-hearted,” says Melvyn Gillette, a member of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California and a longtime family researcher. “Before you go opening any door, you need to ask, ‘Am I really ready for what might be behind it?’ ” Gillette says. “Not everyone is.”

I’m interested in knowing what kind of kaleidoscope of findings would turn up for me on the paternal side, but the price of doing the testing isn’t cheap — the African Ancestry web site sells the MatriClan and PatriClan test kits for $299 (or both for $550).

I’m pretty sure we’d end up with similar findings on that side as well. We’re mutts, and that doesn’t bother me a bit.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding