“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.
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.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.