Do Most Whites Have Traces of African DNA, as I Do?

Tracing Your Roots: Wondering if small amounts of African ancestry come from humanity’s ancient origins or from more recent kin.

 
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Taking a closer look at the results you sent us, we see that your father has the highest amount of sub-Saharan ancestry, at 1.4 percent, all identified as originating in West Africa. Your mother has a smaller percentage of sub-Saharan African DNA, with 0.5 percent identified as West African and 0.1 percent as unassigned sub-Saharan. You also provided us with 23andMe’s chromosome view, which shows the breakdown of ethnicity by each pair of chromosomes.

Interestingly, the chromosome view of your fathers’ results shows larger bands of West African ancestry on two different chromosomes. The bands on your mother’s DNA are much smaller. This suggests that the African ancestry on your father’s side may be more recent than your mother’s.

How DNA Testing Can Help Trace Your African-American Ancestors

So, you see, it is indeed possible that you have recent African-American ancestors. Perhaps by finding out exactly how your African-American ancestor fits into your family tree, you will have a better understanding of what this means for your own identity. You can approach this research in several ways.

Because your father has more African ancestry in his DNA results, you may want to research his line first. You can do this by reaching out to relatives on his side of the family to see if they know anything about their own heritage.

In addition to this, as you may already know, 23andMe offers DNA Relatives, which helps put you in touch with those who may be genetically related to you based on your tests results. FamilyTreeDNA offers a similar service called Family Finder, which complements its y-DNA and mtDNA tests. Ancestry.com is also a treasure trove of connections to recent genetic cousins.

Using such a service, you may be able to find others related to you who also have African ancestry in their DNA. You can look for distant relatives who may have done additional research on this line, or maybe they have their own family stories that may shed some light on common ancestors you might have. This may also be helpful in researching your great-great-grandmother who was adopted in Indiana in the 1800s, since it may be difficult to trace her ancestry using traditional methods.

With that said, you may also want to revisit the paper trail of your ancestors. By connecting with close genetic matches on 23andMe, you may find that there are certain U.S. geographic regions where you found other relatives who also have a percentage of African-American ancestors; this can give you some key regions in which to focus your search.

Since your father’s side of the family was primarily from Texas, you can begin researching his family there using census and vital records to see if you can find any indication of your ancestors’ race. Hopefully, by using your DNA results, reaching out to other relatives and finding your ancestors in paper documents, you can begin to find clues to your African-American ancestry.

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.

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