(The Root) — Genealogical DNA testing can yield very surprising results, as The Root's deputy editor just found out.
"My mother, who is Creole from Louisiana and identifies as black, had her DNA tested recently. The test results came back as positive for a region in India. She was very shocked and confused, because she had never heard of Indian ancestors and can't trace any to Asia on her family tree. Is this a false positive?" —Lauren Williams
Probably not. Several reasons could explain why DNA results for a female Creole from Louisiana would show traces of ancestry from a region in India.
The testing company that your mother used, DNA Tribes, measures a person's genetic profile across his or her genome, excluding the sex chromosomes, focusing upon 15 genetic markers. As the company says, "Values from all 15 markers are used to compute high-resolution population and world region matches" between you and geographic populations.
In your mother's case, her "Native Population Match" results indicate that her DNA is most common in India. Indeed, in the company's "Upper Caste (Andhra Pradesh, India)" population, she has a 70.42 Match Likelihood Index Score.
What does this mean? It means that your mom's DNA profile is most common among these people, of all the people in the world; in fact, it is 70.42 times as common in this group of people in India as in the rest of the world! In another chart among your mom's results, her "Global Population Match Results" — her "closest genetic relatives today and peoples whose blend of geographical ancestry" is most similar to her own — again, belong to the Upper Caste, Andhra Pradesh, India population.
However, these tests measure your mom's deep ancestral origins, not necessarily "recent social or cultural affiliation with a particular ethnicity," as the DNA Tribes website puts it. These results illustrate how human populations evolved, over the last 500 years, as well as over thousands of years, as recorded in your mother's genome. Fascinating, isn't it?
You see, people have ranged far and wide since leaving the cradle of humanity in Africa, so a population migration in the distant past could account for an unexpected DNA testing result today. Ancient peoples with genetic similarities whose descendants now live in India may have settled in the areas in which your mother's ancestors were known to have lived. According to Migration Information Source, "In ancient times, Indian traders established bases around the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, especially in East Africa and Western and Southeast Asia."
Being Creole suggests the possibility of some European ancestry as well. Long-ago migrations from the East into Europe could have resulted in your familial link to India (or a closely related population).
However, the migration in question may have been more modern. Migration Information Source also described the 19th-century tendency for the European colonial powers to send people from India as indentured laborers to a variety of locations including "Guyana, Trinidad, Natal (South Africa), Suriname, and Fiji … Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, and Mauritius … Guyana and East Africa … Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Reunion … Natal (South Africa)." It could very well be that one of your mother's ancestors came in contact with someone with Indian ancestry while living outside of Louisiana — or perhaps the contact occurred when that person emigrated to Louisiana.
Further research of her family tree could uncover the nature of the connection that led to her test results.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, 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.