Monday, February 18, 2008

My Black History: It's in the Blood

One of the relatively new tactics that people are using to explore their family histories is DNA testing. If you are a fan of PBS's African American Lives series, as I am, you have seen genetic testing at work. There are tests that attempt to pinpoint African and Native ancestry. There are tests that attempt to uncover how Caucasian, Asian, Sub-Saharan African or Native American the test subject is. All of these can be valuable in uncovering a family story that extends far beyond the imagination. Eventually, I hope to take several of these tests to help further my family research, but they are expensive, ranging in the hundreds of dollars. So, I began my foray into DNA testing by participating in the National Geographic Genographic Project.

According to the Genographic Project Web site:

...DNA studies suggest that all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who—about 60,000 years ago—began a remarkable journey.

The Genographic Project is seeking to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. In this unprecedented and real-time research effort, the Genographic Project is closing the gaps of what science knows today about humankind's ancient migration stories. MORE

For less than $100, I was able to participate in this project, learn about my very earliest maternal ancestors (If you are a man, the test traces your patrilineal line.), and receive DNA mapping that I can use to take more extensive tests and make family connections.

There really is no blood involved. (The title just sounded cool.) My package from National Geographic included a swab kit that I used to scrape my cheek and return the sample to the lab. I purchased one test for myself to explore my matrilineal line (my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother' mother and so on), and one for my father to capture his patrilineal line. Here is just a little of what I learned:

I am part of Haplogroup L1b, one of the oldest female lineages on Earth.

Haplogroup L1b, a subclade of L1 which arose about 100,000 YBP (years before present), itself appeared on the African mitochondrial DNA scene approximately 30,000 years ago. It is found in the peoples of north, west and central Africa.

L1b is found in highest frequency (13%) in West Africa most likely due to the Bantu Expansions. In a recent study by Dr. Bruce Jackson et al, areas such as Sierra Leone, have been found to occur in from 12-27% of Mende, Limba and Loko samples tested. L1b is also found in high frequency in the Mandenka, Wolof and Fulani of Senegal. As a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade whereby natives from Sierra Leone were brought to North America and specifically the South Carolina area, L1b is also found in 10% of African Americans.

My father is a member of E3a (M2).

In human genetics, Haplogroup E3a (M2) is a Y-chromosome haplogroup. This haplogroup is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and descendant populations. It is the single largest Y-chromosome haplogroup in this area and a branch of haplogroup E.

The man who gave rise to this lineage may have been born in Africa around 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. His descendants may then have traveled south to sub-Saharan Africa.

Haplogroup E3a is an African lineage. It is currently hypothesized that this haplogroup dispersed eastward and southward from western Africa within the last 3,000 years, by the Bantu agricultural expansion. E3a is also the most common lineage among African Americans.

The information that accompanies final results from National Geographic extends far beyond the basic overview that I have provided. It includes a map showing the migration of your haplogroup and other details.

In addition to the information provided by National Geographic, DNA information can be loaded into a variety of free databases that can assist in finding genetic cousins all over the world. I have also used the information to participate in surname projects that further my family research. For instance, there is some discussion among the descendants of my great-great-grandfather, Constantine, a former slave, that his owner, Absalom Farrar Winfrey, may also have also been his father. By including my father in the Winfrey surname project, I can discover whether his DNA matches that of Winfreys who gained their surname through biology not bondage.

Genetic testing is a weighty topic and can not hope to even scratch the surface of all its uses, implications and controversies. If I have whetted your appetite to learn more, try these sites for additional information:

National Geographic Genographic Project
Family Tree DNA
African Ancestry

My Black History posts are part of the 32 Days of Black History blogathon, hosted by Mamalicious and Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Also blogging are InkogNegro, Christina Springer and From the Dawg House.


Yvette said...

Tami, thanks for sharing! This is actually one of my research interests. Specifically, how did you decide to do the testing? It sounds as if you were already involved in more "traditional" genealogical research before deciding to do the DNA tests. Have others in your family done the same? Did you (or your family members) ever have any concerns about what the tests might reveal?

Stay tuned to the 3Days project. Later this month I hope to have a guest contribution from a friend of mine whose family was profiled on the last American Lives. I think you'll find it interesting!

Take care!

Mes Deux Cents said...


Is the National Geographic project still going on? I checked the and they are soooo expensive. Dr. Gates is going to get rich.

Tami said...


I kind of decided to start doing family research and to take the DNA test at the same time. I was inspired by watching African American Lives on PBS the first time around. Henry Louis Gates uncovered quite a lot about Oprah's paternal ancestors, and those ancestors are my paternal ancestors, too. I am also descended from Constantine Winfrey. Learning so much about that branch of the family tree sparked me to research the others and try to go further back on the Winfrey side.

While I have been introduced to a bunch of new Winfrey cousins through genealogy, I haven't heard of any others that have done the DNA thing. I never had any worries about what genetics would reveal.

I will check out the 3Days project.


I know, right?

Yep, you can still participate in the National Geographic project. The links in my post should take you there. The price has gone up from $89 to $99, but that is still cheap. Once you get your ressults back, you can upload them to Family Tree DNA's database and that company offers additional testing using the results from National Geographic. Like, this weekend, I finally decided to get some additional DNA analyses done through FTDNA. The cost was much less because I had already paid for the original testing.

Ana said...

Wow that was absolutely fascinating! I've really enjoyed your blog and will definately be back.

My blog is

Heart said...

This is great! Thanks for this post and information, Tami, I am really excited about all of it. :)

ብልልይ።ግምብለ said...

Salamm alaykum = ሳላአም አላይኩ , Hotep ! = ሆተፕ , Shalom ! = ስሃሎም and Greetings to All….

My Name is Billy Gambela. I am Nubian-Egyptian American..

I belong to mtdna L2a1 and on my Fathers side

I am related to the Nubian-Egyptian E3a/M2

Billy Gambela

L said...

Greetings Tami!

You and I share the same maternal and paternal haplogroups (in fact you are one of my low resolution HVR1 matches). I am born to Nigerian parents. We are Igbo.

L1b is approximately 30,000 years old, while L1 is approx 174,000 years old. L1b is actually found in approximately 27% of so-called African Americans (I don’t say so-called in a disrespectful way, but I believe the term is so abstract that it does not designate a proper specific place(s) of origin within Africa nor a nationality for our people). Haplogroup L1, which is more frequent and diverse in West and Central Africa than in East Africa (Salas et al. 2002), is represented in Ethiopia by six L1b lineages, whereas L1c is completely absent in our Ethiopian and Yemeni samples. Five Ethiopian L1b lineages share a transition at np 16289 --- which defines a founder, L1b1a— that is spread among Ethiopians and Nubians (Krings et al. 1999) and is associated with relatively low downstream variation (fig. 2A)” (Tooma et al., 2004, p. 761).

I am also Elbla (formerly E3a) with the shorthand of M2. M2 is not solely seen in populations below the Sahara and cannot be explained solely through Bantu migrations.

Haplogroup IV (M2) 30,000 years old and has been observed in about 8.4% of Sephardic Jews (Keita, 2005, p. 561). M2/E3a is observed in about 58-60% of African Americans. M2 is present in nearly 80% of Tutsis of Eastern Central Africa who are said to be originally Eastern Ethiopians or Egyptian/Nile Valley People (Luis et al, 2004). M2 was found in approximately 67% of the population of Egyptians at 20-30,000 years B.P.

Bantu migrations/expansions have been used to explain M2 into West Africa, but these migrations are said to have occurred around 2000-3000 years B.P. and M2 was prevalent in Nile Valley civilizations approx 18k to 27k years prior to this. “Haplotype IV has substantial frequencies in upper Egypt and Nubia, greater than VII and VIII, and even V. Bantu languages were never spoken in these regions or Senegal, where M2 is greater than 90 percent in some studies.” (Keita & Boyce, 2005, p 229).

I think the DNA tests are great, because they are helping many locate their ancestry and build a deeper connection to places like Africa.


Keita, S.O.Y, & Boyce, A.J. (2005). GENETICS, EGYPT, AND HISTORY:
OF Y CHROMOSOME VARIATION . History in Africa 32 (2005), 221–246

Keita, S.O.Y. (2005). History in the Interpretation of the Pattern of p49a,f TaqI RFLP Y-Chromosome Variation in Egypt: A Consideration of Multiple Lines of Evidence. American Journal of Human Biology. 17:559–567.

J. R. Luis,1,2,* D. J. Rowold,1,* M. Regueiro,2 B. Caeiro,2 C. Cinniog˘lu,3 C. Roseman,3 P. A. Underhill,3 L. L. Cavalli-Sforza,3 and R. J. Herrera1 (2004). The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 74:000–000, 2004.

Toomas Kivisild,1 Maere Reidla,1 Ene Metspalu,1 Alexandra Rosa,1 Antonio Brehm,2 Erwan Pennarun,1 Ju¨ri Parik,1 Tarekegn Geberhiwot,3 Esien Usanga,4 and Richard Villems1 (2004). Ethiopian Mitochondrial DNA Heritage: Tracking Gene Flow Across and Around the Gate of Tears. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 75:752–770, 2004

Fish Hook said...

I am interested in this genetic mapping. Briefly, can someone me establish email contact with Essien Usanga. He is Indian and I am Nigerian. He is an academic in the field of genetic mapping. I believe very stronly that Essien and I are genetically related. His contact with me will yield results that he himself will be staggered to discover. Esien or anyone who knows him may reah me at my email address


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