Pictured holding a rootstock club and wearing a boar's tusk necklace is Fijian mountain warrior Kai Colo, 1870s. Fiji is part of Melanesia, a region from which many West Indians can trace some of their heritage.
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been watching your show and cannot remember anyone having Melanesian in their DNA ethnicity results. I did the Ancestry.com DNA test and it showed 1 percent Pacific Islander-Trace Region: Melanesia. I just wondered how often this comes up in people from the West Indies. My mother is Trinidadian and my father is Jamaican. I will send you the results of the DNA test. —Karen Davis

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The short answer to your question is that it comes up in people from the West Indies more often than you might think. First, for those who are not clear about what the term West Indies refers to, we asked Steven Niven, executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography (of which I am co-editor-in-chief with Franklin W. Knight), for a good definition. He told us in an email, “The West Indies once referred to all of the Caribbean islands invaded and occupied by various European nations from the 15th century onwards. By the mid-to-late 20th century the term came primarily to refer to the English-speaking island nations of the Caribbean, plus Guyana in South America, which shared cultural, political, and economic links to the British Caribbean.” 

Having that in hand, we reached out to Ancestry.com with your question and received this reply by email from Yong Wang, a research scientist there:

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The short answer is that Karen's results are not unusual for someone with ancestry from the West Indies. On average, AncestryDNA customers born in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are predicted to have 0.26% and 0.98% of ancestry from Melanesia, respectively. So it is not uncommon for Karen to have about 1% predicted Melanesian ancestry given that her parents were born in these two countries. Additionally, people born in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago tend to carry South Asian ancestry which is strongly correlated to Melanesian ancestry, and right in line with Karen's results showing South Asian ancestry. 

When someone has significant ancestry from one population or area, it is not uncommon to estimate a small (or even large) amount of ancestry from one or more neighboring populations or areas. Throughout history, people have moved between populations and have intermarried; which is why, for example, we notice customers born in South Asia tend to have small amount of predicted Melanesian ancestry.

About 2,000 islands make up Melanesia, extending from the Eastern Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea north and northeast of Australia and west of Indonesia. Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are among the nations of the Melanesian region. According to Ancestry.com’s webpage on Melanesia, “Ancestors of the region’s indigenous populations came in two waves, the first out of Southeast Asia some 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. They include the Papuans and aboriginal Australians. The second wave, the Austronesians, arrived 3,500 to 3,000 years ago.”

You likely already know that indentured servants from India in South Asia were brought to Trinidad and other Caribbean nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and your DNA report (“Asia South: Range 15 percent to 23 percent”) indicates that among them were likely some of your ancestors. According to anthropologist Viranjini Munasinghe in an interview published on the Asia Society website:

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When the slaves were emancipated in the British Caribbean in 1838, the planters looked for alternative supplies of docile and servile labor that could replace the labor of the former slaves …

India was a suitable source because India's population was vast, the majority accustomed to agricultural labor under tropical conditions, and because the country was under British control there was no need for negotiations with foreign authorities. Living conditions were also grim for many Indians in the nineteenth century due to famine, disease, overpopulation and the increasing encroachment of the East India Company. As a result, many Indians were destitute and looked to opportunities outside of India in order to improve their impoverished lives. Between 1845 and 1917 (when indenture was abolished due to pressure from Indian nationalists) approximately 143,939 Indians came to Trinidad.

Suriname and British Guiana in South America (the latter now known as Guyana), as well as Jamaica, were other top destinations for Indian labor in the Caribbean and Americas.

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As of 2011, the “East Indian”/South Asian population of Trinidad and Tobago was 35 percent, according to the CIA World Fact Book. Thirty-four percent were of African descent, and nearly 8 percent of mixed African and South Asian descent. Jamaica’s “East Indian”/South Asian population is less than 1 percent.

So rest assured that your DNA results were not unusual at all!

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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