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.


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