Wednesday, April 05, 2000

DNA helps find African roots

Howard University's genetic data match people with ancestors

Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — Greta Irby has been on a mission to trace her ancestry since she got hooked on the miniseries Roots 23 years ago. The mother, grandmother and great-grandmother from Washington, D.C., has spent countless hours poring through the records of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Daughters of the American Revolution and even the Mormon Church.

        Howard University researchers have not decided how the tests would be marketed, though a Web site name,, has been reserved to advertise the service, Dr. Rick Kittles said. Marketing details could be worked out in time to offer the tests to the public in about three months, he said.
        The tests will likely cost $200 to $300, Dr. Kittles said.

        But Ms. Irby can trace her roots back only to the slave plantations of Virginia. Like most blacks, Ms. Irby wonders where her ancestors came from before they were sold away from Africa and stripped of their family names, language and culture.

        Ms. Irby's quest could become as simple as taking a blood test. Howard University researchers said they can use current genetic testing methods to link millions of African-Americans to the part of Africa their ancestors hailed from. They have gotten positive results in African-Americans already tested and hope to market such a service by this summer.

        Ms. Irby said she would jump at the chance. “It could hopefully place you on the African continent — what we say is the mother continent,” she said.

        Howard University for years has used genetic data to study diseases that afflict African-Americans, including sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure and diabetes. But three years ago researchers began to consider genetic testing to help African-Americans discover their ancestors in Africa, said Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist at the university.

        Historians and geneticists agree the tests could fill a void in the identity of African-Americans whose ancestors were held in bondage. But the tests might also raise uncomfortable questions about race, ethnic pride and the dirty secrets of American history that blacks and whites alike may not want to deal with, some historians said.

        The tests have already revealed that about 30 percent of African-American males have a white male ancestor — often evidence one of their slave ancestors was the rape victim or mistress of a white plantation owner or overseer.

        Some genealogists wonder how much demand there will be for such testing.

        Some blacks are uncomfortable with their African roots or the implications of having a slave-era white ancestor. Others would be leery of taking genetic tests, considering that blacks were sometimes the subject of secret medical experiments — including black men in Tuskegee, Ala., who had contracted syphilis and were studied without receiving treatment once it became available.

        “I have problems with someone having that much data on me,” said Char McCargo Bah, who like Ms. Irby is a member of the District of Columbia Genealogical Society. “There is no guarantee that it will be used just for (genealogical testing).”

        African-American ancestry can be traced through mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA testing, Dr. Kittles said.

        Mitochondrial DNA, which comes from a part of the human cell that generates energy, is passed unchanged from mothers to their children, he said. The Y chromosome, which determines whether a child will be male, is passed directly from fathers to sons, he said.

        There are mutations in these genes that are common in certain population groups. As a result, blood tests can be used to give a person an idea of in what part of the world a mother's or father's lineage arose.

        These two methods of genetic testing have already received attention. The Y chromosome method was used to prove Thomas Jefferson might have fathered at least one child by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. Mitchondrial testing has uncovered evidence that all humans — no matter what race — are descended from a woman or group of women who lived in Africa millennia ago.

        Howard University researchers have gathered genetic samples from 3,800 Africans and 200 African-Americans, Dr. Kittles said.

        One who tried the ancestry testing method was Sam Ford, a reporter for WJLA television in Washington, D.C.

        “It's just like giving blood,” said Mr. Ford, who got back test results in November after a six-week wait.

        Mr. Ford was already able to trace some of his ancestry to slaves owned by American Indians in Oklahoma, but the genetic test took him further back. It turns out Mr. Ford's father's ancestors likely came from Nigeria and his mother's side is a mixture of Africans from the Ethiopia-Somalia region, Niger and Guinea.

        Now Mr. Ford has developed an intense interest in the Yoruba people of Nigeria who lived in a confederation of city-states during the slave trade era. The Yorubans are renowned for their sophisticated metal working and weaving styles, he said.

        But the tests have drawbacks. They are not a magic bullet and will give African-Americans only a “broad brushstroke” of their African lineage, said Kevin McElfresh, a population geneticist at Bode Technology Group in Springfield, Va.

        So an African-American would not be able to knock on the door of the Adu family in Lagos, Nigeria, wave a genetic test result, and say, “Hello cousin” — at least not in the foreseeable future, he said.

        Dr. Kittles said Howard University must also collect more genetic data on Africans. So far, Nigeria and Ghana are over-sampled and researchers need more information from countries such as Angola, Mali and Niger because slaves were often taken from the interior of the continent, he said.

        And African-Americans — descended from people brought here over a period of more than 350 years — are not so African anymore. Most African-Americans, no matter how dark their complexion, can claim at least one white or American Indian ancestor, geneticists said.

        In fact, the Howard University test might not find an African match for blacks who have a lot of mixed ancestry in both their mother's and father's family tree, geneticists said.

        Dr. Kittles himself discovered through Y chromosome testing that he had a direct male ancestor who likely came from Germany. On his mother's side he shares the same genetic materials as Africans now living in Nigeria, he said.

        Limits aside, the tests could be a vital step in helping African-Americans heal the historical wounds of slavery, which still cast a shadow of black economic success, education and self-image, said Richard Newman, research officer at Harvard University's W.E.B. Dubois Institute.

        “Black people reinvented themselves (in the Americas), and that's an astonishing accomplishment,” he said. “And I think any scientific data able to link African-Americans with their own history is a positive in that it builds up the self.”


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