When I was a little Black girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan, the last thing I was thinking about was genealogy, family history or anything beyond my little world of people who loved me and who I loved back.
But pretty early in life, I became interested in history. When my parents subscribed to National Geographic, that magazine really jump-started my evolution into the history nerd I am today.
From the many issues of National Geographic I read over the years, I was most intrigued by the articles on anthropology – the scientific study of human races, origins, societies, and cultures.
The history of human beings.
I devoured everything I could find on anthropology and what’s now called the human family tree. My hero back then was Mary Leakey, a paleoanthropologist (fossil expert), who discovered the 1.75 million year old bones of a “hominid” – a now extinct early ancestor of both apes and humans.
As I became an adult, my love of history and anthropology morphed into a passion for genealogy. It’s been a way for me to understand a heritage that is more than just the color of my skin, as I once thought it was. Genealogy has been my focus for almost 40 years. And up until last year, I was content to continue my journey into the past using a paper trail left by my ancestors. But then I took a DNA test through 23andMe (where I’m now an affiliate).
Now I’m looking at my family history from the inside out. And what a view that’s turned out to be!
First I learned a little about my own little branch on the human family tree. My DNA test shows that I have 1.9% Neanderthal in my genes. The Neanderthals are another extinct branch of humans who mingled their DNA with our modern human ancestors 60,000 years ago. Most people with European or Asian heritage still have some Neanderthal DNA, between 1-4%. People from sub-Saharan Africa typically have little to none.
I learned that my sub-Saharan African ancestors make up 53.9% of my DNA. According to the standard view on 23andme, I am 35.6% West African. I’d like to learn more about how my African DNA breaks down but it shows that I have ancestry from Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
I have almost no ancestors who come from the Middle East or Northern Africa as shown by my less than one percent DNA from that area of the world.
It was no surprise to learn that I have European ancestry – something that had already shown up in my genealogy research. I was surprised, though, to learn that my European ancestry was over 40% of my DNA, with over half of that being nonspecific Northern European. I’m still trying to understand more about this finding.
After years of hearing stories in my family about Native American heritage, I was intrigued to learn that I carry 2.1% East Asian/Native American in my DNA. Most of that is my Native American ancestry. I recently asked questions about this from a a very knowledgeable member of the 23andme community – “King Genome” who was very generous in sharing some insights into this part of my DNA results below:
Your results definitely support Native American in 4th to 6th great-grandparent if one event in your family. Your full sibling might give you a better idea of the range you might expect this ancestor to be from. It could as close as 3rd-great-grandparent or much further away based on the sibling’s results … By the way, your Native proportion to Southeast Asian is very substantial and suggests Native Ancestry from somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line.
King Genome gave me some great suggestions on how to better understand my DNA results. Thanks to King Genome for helping out a DNA newbie because this stuff is not easy to understand. At least for me.
About 3% of my DNA couldn’t be specifically assigned so that part of who I am remains unknown.
My maternal or mitochondrial ancient history is represented by the finding that my haplogroup is H39 – a small subgroup of the H haplogroup that’s predominant throughout Europe. Not exactly what I expected so this is an area where I have a lot more to learn and discover about my early ancestors.
At this point, if you’re thinking that ancestry DNA is just interesting “inside” information – think again. When I took my DNA test on 23andMe last year, they connected me with some genetic relatives. None of them were people I already knew or ever expected to know. But one 3rd or 4th degree cousin, “Trish” reached out to me and we started brainstorming about our family connection.
Since we both had family from Bermuda, we followed that path. And drum roll – I’m thrilled to report that our efforts paid off when we confirmed last week that my grandfather and Trish’s great-grandmother were brother and sister. We were both in tears over this amazing news and had our first phone conversation over the weekend.
The important lesson for me is that the DNA science from 23andme has turned into real family. And while there’s a lot more for me to discover and understand about my DNA results, I’m loving this new view of family history from the inside out.
What about you? Have you thought about trying DNA testing as a way to make Black history personal?