I Expected African DNA Results. Why Are Mine Chinese?

Tracing Your Roots: Genealogical testing reveals surprising results, but there are good explanations.

Map of China
Map of China Thinkstock

“I used AfricanAncestry.com to trace my matrilineal and patrilineal DNA. Through my brother, Keiffer Mitchell, Jr., the patrilineal results were traced to the people of China. We were amused by the result, and somewhat disappointed, given that we expected results from Africa. I took the maternal DNA test and it traced to the Ibo of Nigeria.

“Please explain the most likely linkage to China. My father always claimed that his lineage was primarily from East Africa. Could this be the reason?” —Kathleen Mitchell

While DNA testing is a way to continue to trace your ancestry back when the paper trail is lacking, sometimes unexpected results can raise more questions than answers.

Two Possible Explanations for Your Results

There are a few potential reasons for this unexpected result. First, it is possible that you do have a direct male ancestor from China.

In early-19th-century America, there was a rapid growth in Chinese immigrants who were put to work doing hard labor, many of them building railroads. Both African Americans and Chinese immigrants performed backbreaking work to build the infrastructure for America’s westward expansion. Similar to African Americans, the Chinese were treated as second-class citizens and faced discrimination. Given these similar experiences and the proximity, unions between Chinese men and African-American women are not surprising.

Another possibility is that these results are an indication of Native American ancestry. Native Americans are closely related genetically to East Asians and can show up as Asian in test results.

It’s true that throughout American history, African Americans and Native Americans have had a complex and changing relationship, including periods of cooperation and periods of conflict. For example, the Seminole Indians of Florida welcomed runaway slaves to form a military alliance as U.S. troops sought to take over the Seminoles’ land that they’d purchased from Spain.

However, Native Americans also owned black slaves, and after the Civil War, segregated regiments of African-American soldiers fought against Native Americans during the American Indian Wars. Despite this complex relation, there are many instances of intermarriage between Native Americans and African Americans, especially before the Civil War and the removal of Native Americans to designated tribal lands.