Family  /  Debunk

Finding Our Roots? History and DNA

DNA tests have become popular tools to rediscover lost ties to the past, but the links they forge do not always stand up to historical scrutiny.

My close encounter with Oprah left me fascinated with the potential promises and pitfalls of DNA testing as a means of accessing ancestry and identity. Several years later, I helped organize a yearlong symposium through the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s African Studies Program focused on genetics, genealogy, and the African diaspora. We invited geneticists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and interested UW community members to take part in this project. In addition to shared readings, documentary film screenings, and scholarly research presentations, we included a “participant observation” component to the symposium. Early in the fall semester, participants drew names out of a hat. Five lucky winners earned the right to learn their supposed African origins from one of the commercial DNA testing companies. The participants took their cheek swabs in front of us, we sent off the samples, and then we awaited the reveal day in the spring.

By the big reveal in the spring, I thought that the participants understood that DNA did not provide the straightforward historical and ethnographic conclusions that geneticists frequently claim. In fact, such conclusions are often downright misleading. The company we chose claims that they “find identical matches” for 85 percent of those they test, revealing both an African “country and ethnic group of origin.” However, the proprietary databases of genetic samples used in these evaluations are small, especially for Africa. Moreover, as in Europe or anywhere else, African countries and ethnic groups have histories. Like “Zulu,” they are neither static nor primordial. Historical migration means that a genetic sample found in one place today was not necessarily the place of origin for the person producing that sample, let alone the place of origin of their ancestors.

Nevertheless, it became apparent fairly quickly that our volunteers were taking the testing seriously and were anxious to learn about their African ethnic pasts. The first to reveal was a white professor who predictably showed that his origins resided in western Europe with no African ancestry. A graduate student who identified as mixed race likewise demonstrated an expected mixture of ancestry from all over Europe and several places in West Africa. A professor who identified as African American was excited to learn that her closest genetic markers came from the Kpelle people of Liberia (like Oprah!), and the company provided an elaborate celebratory certificate of attestation for her to frame and put on her wall. Another African American professor was crestfallen to learn that she had no African DNA and that all her ancestry came from Europe. Finally, our “control” subject was a Nigerian, born and raised Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Surely that’s where he would match.