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I’m White, but Tests Show I Have East African DNA. How?

Tracing Your Roots: Finding African ancestry wasn’t as shocking to him as the region of Africa shown in the results.

Masai warriors in German East Africa, circa 1906-1918

Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aug. 1, 2014.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am very much a “white” person, with no family oral history to suggest otherwise (except the obligatory Native American-ancestor stories, which don’t pan out).

However, when I had a test done for myself by Ancestry DNA, my results came back with around 1 percent African DNA. When painting my chromosomes [to visually highlight relevant areas], I found a moderate-sized segment that comes up sub-Saharan African on all data sets, about 7-8 centimorgans or so.

I had my parents tested, and the same segment shows on my mother’s DNA, except hers is about twice as large, roughly 15-17 cM (she also had a couple of other smaller segments that were African). She also comes up anywhere between 0.8-1.3 percent African (more of that sub-Saharan than what I have). I seem to get some North African/Middle Eastern from my father, who had traces of it in his own test results, but mostly continental European ancestry.

I had a DNA expert look into it further. His first discovery was that the sub-Saharan African result is definitely legitimate and not just noise. When he ran the data further, he found that it matched most strongly from East Africa (the highest match being 1.5 cM to a Masai data sample, as well as multiple other matches). At first he thought it would be from a nearby area, maybe the Near or Middle East or the Mediterranean. As he dug further, he didn’t see it matching any of those nearby regions, and to his surprise, it seemed to suggest that I have an East African ancestor in the last couple hundred years.

I was able to narrow this down to my mother’s father (I had my grandmother tested, and it doesn’t show any of those segments). The paper trail dates back at least 200 years or so without any immigrant ancestors, and everyone we’ve traced shows as “white” on census records, though it’s worth noting that all the people in this branch of my family tree were living in the South.

At first when I saw African DNA, I thought I might have a slave ancestor, though with East African results, I’m a bit at a loss. I’m curious if you know of any reason a “white” American with at least 200 years of American ancestry might have East African DNA. —Matthew Langley

It is certainly possible for you to have an East African ancestor, though you are correct in noting that most enslaved Africans didn’t come from that region. Most of those who did weren’t brought to America.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, headed by David Eltis and Martin Halbert, shows just over 542,000 people embarking from Southeast Africa and a few Indian Ocean islands between 1601 and 1866—just a small fraction of the 12.2 million people who were enslaved and taken from Africa during that period.

Furthermore, as Eltis said in a previous column, “Most transatlantic slave vessels from Southeast Africa sold their captives to Brazil and Cuba—mainly in the 19th century.” They rarely sold enslaved Africans in America, though it did happen.

However, before assuming that your ancestry comes from one of these rare cases, I asked 23andMe’s Katarzyna “Kasia” Bryc to look at the test results and graphs that you submitted. She is the genetic researcher who found that about 4 percent of self-identified white Americans have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry. After reviewing your documents, she told me, “There is fairly convincing evidence of West African ancestry.” That would be more consistent with the origins of most Americans with forebears from the African continent.

Bryc continued, “First, the Ancestry DNA results suggest ancestry from either Senegal or in Ivory Coast/Ghana for both ‘Matt’ and ‘Mom,’ according to the screenshots. Second, in all of the chromosome paintings, the majority ancestry looks to be assigned to sub-Saharan Africa and West Africa, and I see no strong evidence of East African ancestry in any ancestry painting.”

As for the Masai match you mentioned, Bryc noted, “The Masai population is at the crossroads of North Africa/Middle East and West Africa and is fairly admixed. I suspect that the genetic distance between this region of the genome [in your results] and Masai might appear low, since the regions in the ancestry paintings appear to be made of segments of African and European ancestry.”

She added, “Especially considering that the family history points to the Southern U.S., this seems fairly likely to reflect West African ancestry from several generations ago, consistent with a slave ancestor, though it is hard for me to rule this out without further details on the analysis that linked to East Africa.”

So chances are, like a number of other white Americans, you have an enslaved West African ancestor in your past. Good luck with your ongoing research into your roots!

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 co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.