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

However, DNA evidence has definitely shown that very, very few African Americans today have a significant amount of Native American ancestry in their genomes. In fact, according to Ancestry.com, the average African American is 2 percent Native American, while 23andMe puts it at 0.6 percent Native American and Family Tree DNA says it’s 1.7 percent.

So, those stories many of us heard about the Cherokee grandmother with those “high cheeks and straight black hair” were, most probably, myths. In fact, the reason our grandmothers had those cheekbones and hair texture is usually not Native American ancestry but the large proportion, on average, of European ancestry in virtually every African American’s DNA. And that, of course, was the result of forced sexuality during the slave regime. So even if your result is due to Native American ancestry, it’s doubtful that you have a lot of it.

Which Is the More Likely Explanation?

To determine which of these scenarios is more probable, you will need to know the y-DNA haplogroup. Haplogroups are used to identify deep ancestral roots linking early groups that followed similar migration patterns. As an example, this map from Family Tree DNA (pdf) shows the migration of various haplogroups thousands of years ago.

Haplogroups, identified by a genetic mutation, would occur in a population group over time that was subsequently passed down from parent to child. There are different haplogroups for mitochondrial DNA (maternal) and y-DNA (paternal) tests. Major haplogroups are identified either by a letter and then each subsequent branch off this main group, or by a series of letters and numbers. For example, if your y-DNA haplogroup is E-M215 (also referred to as E1b1b or E3B), the likely ancestral origin for your paternal line is in Northern Africa or the Horn of Africa. To learn more about this, 23andMe provides a good general overview of haplogroups and how they relate to genetic genealogy.

Since your brother already took the test and the results were analyzed, you can ask the company that did the testing for information about your haplogroup. We did not see that information in the copy of the report that you shared with us. If the company cannot give you that result, you should be tested by a company that reveals haplogroup results, such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.

Once you know which haplogroups you belong to, you can begin to find more information about that group’s origin and migration through time. This will, hopefully, help you determine if part of your ancestry is, in fact, Chinese or if it is more closely related to Native Americans.

It is also important to remember that a y-DNA test can test only the paternal line (DNA passed from father to son), and it can be a narrow view of your total ancestry. So while you may have a male ancestor of Chinese origin for this one line, you may have many other lines with African origins.

Also keep in mind that results can vary from company to company, based on the data sets and methods they use. As more research and testing are done, more results can be compared to yield more-accurate information.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.