The Problem with Tracing African Ancestry

by Sierraeye

Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t.

The surge in popularity of services like 23andMe and Ancestry means that more and more people are unearthing long-buried connections and surprises in their ancestry.


Nov. 19, 2018

Sigrid E. Johnson this year.

Sigrid E. Johnson this year.Illustration by Jules Julien

Sigrid E. Johnson this year.Illustration by Jules Julien


Listen to This Article


Audio Recording by Audm

To hear more audio stories from publishers like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.




Three years ago, when Sigrid E. Johnson was 62, she got a call from a researcher seeking volunteers for a study on DNA ancestry tests and ethnic identity. Johnson agreed to help. After all, she and the researcher, Anita Foeman, had been pals for half a century, ever since they attended the same elementary school in their integrated Philadelphia neighborhood, where they and other black children were mostly protected from the racism beyond its borders. Foeman, a professor of communication at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, asked Johnson to swab the inside of her cheek and share her thoughts about her ethnic and racial identity before and after the results came back.


Johnson’s father, a chauffeur who later became a superintendent at a housing project in North Philadelphia, had a golden-brown complexion. Her mother, who said her own father was a white Brit and her mother was half African-American and half Native American, was light-skinned. People sometimes mistook Johnson’s mother for white, and when she applied for seamstress jobs at department stores in the 1920s and ’30s, she chose not to correct them.


Sigrid, who had light caramel skin, was their only child, and her parents, Martha and Frank Gilchrist, doted on her. In grade school, she prayed each night for an older brother, someone who would be fun to play with and would look after her, as her friends’ brothers did with their siblings. When she wasn’t busy with ballet and piano lessons, she caught lightning bugs and played dolls, hopscotch and jump rope with nearby friends. The neighborhood, West Mount Airy, was a tree-lined community, one of the first in the nation to integrate successfully. It was populated mostly by middle- and upper-class people, including many African-American professional men who had fair-skinned wives and children whose complexions matched their mothers’.


Johnson doesn’t remember her parents talking much about race, except when her father made it clear that he expected her to marry a black man. But even without that explicit talk, she was immersed in the highs and lows of black life. Her cousin, a surgeon named William Gilchrist Anderson, lived in Albany, Ga., where he led a large coalition of activists in the early 1960s to desegregate public facilities. A friend and classmate of Ralph Abernathy, Anderson persuaded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to participate in the city’s demonstrations, which Johnson remembers she and her parents sometimes joined. During the family’s trips to visit her cousin in Georgia, Johnson saw water fountains that said “Whites Only.” And she still remembers the night that a giant cross burned near her cousin’s front yard and how he swept her and everyone else out of the house and put them all up in a hotel.


As a young teenager, Johnson pestered her mother about what it was like to give birth to her — a query her mother always dodged. But when Johnson was 16, her mother broke down and said through tears that they adopted her when she was an infant. Her mother explained that Johnson’s biological father was black and that her biological mother was a white Italian woman who said she couldn’t keep the baby, who by then was 2 or 3 months old. The woman, who lived in South Philadelphia, had explained that she already had several children, all of whom were blond, and that her white husband didn’t want another man’s child raised in his home, not least of all one whose color so boldly announced that fact. Johnson’s mother said the woman came to see the baby for about a year, until she asked the woman to stop visiting because she didn’t want Sigrid to find out she was adopted. Johnson teared up as she recounted the conversation with her mother that took place 49 years ago. “The news — all of it — was crushing,” Johnson told me. “To this day, I honestly wish she had never told me. I wanted my mom to be my mom.” Neither one ever broached the subject with the other again.


So when Anita Foeman requested that she take a DNA test, Johnson figured it was no big deal: She was half African and half Italian. “I knew what the results would show when they came back — that is, until the results actually came back.”




Johnson is one of many millions of people around the world who have placed a bit of saliva into a DNA kit, sent it off to a testing company, waited a good month for the results and then discovered the sometimes life-altering secrets hidden in those tiny drops. Virtually every cell in a human’s body carries that person’s whole unique blueprint — the double helix of DNA. The genes on chromosomes influence the traits of every living thing. Testing companies analyze hundreds of thousands of particular genetic sequences and use those snippets as clues to all sorts of information. Scientists have determined specific locations in the DNA code that provide hints about where your ancestors came from, because people from the same geographical place share certain genetic similarities. The tests can also reveal your biological relatives, and how closely you’re related, by evaluating how much of your and their DNA patterns overlap. In addition, DNA analysis can identify some of the hereditary disorders you may be predisposed to or may pass on to your children.


Rudimentary DNA testing has been around since the mid-20th century, but at-home genetic tests (aside from simple paternity tests) didn’t show up until this century, after the Human Genome Project prompted biotechnological advances that made genetic sequencing much more affordable. Most of those early personal genomic tests focused on genealogy, a way to fill out the family tree, because determining familial connections is scientifically much more straightforward than determining a person’s true ethnic lineage. But in 2007, as scientists linked more genes to diseases and traits, 23andMe pioneered a much broader kind of retail genomics, a $999 saliva test that promised to reveal genetic information from the novel to the profound. It included ancestry and information about medical and other genetic information, including consumers’ risk for age-related macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes, as well genes that block the bitter taste in vegetables and influence weight gain.


The following year, Time magazine named the company’s retail DNA test the Invention of the Year, describing this moment as “the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information. … Not everything about how this information will be used is clear yet — 23andMe has stirred up debate about issues ranging from how meaningful the results are to how to prevent genetic discrimination — but the curtain has been pulled back, and it can never be closed again.”


Those debates continue, but in the last year or so, sales of at-home genetic tests have risen meteorically. By April 2017, 23andMe had roughly two million customers, and this past January, just nine months later, it had more than five million. AncestryDNA’s customer base doubled to about six million in 2017 alone and has since grown to more than 10 million. Add to that all the customers of MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, Helix, National Geographic’s DNA test and dozens of others. The most popular tests are those that promise to reveal test takers’ ancestry and identify their relatives — and have the potential to upend our understanding of ourselves. Just imagine what you might find out: Your father is not your dad but actually your dad’s best friend. Or your sister is really your half sister or isn’t your biological sister at all. Or you’re the child of a sperm donor and have 150 half siblings. These and endless other DNA surprises all raise the same question: Are we really who we think we are?




Once Johnson found out she was adopted, the 16-year-old examined every passer-by in Philadelphia, wondering: “Are you my relative?” When it came time to choose a college, she opted for a school more than 500 miles away: a historically black university in Ohio called Wilberforce, named after a prominent 18th-century abolitionist. It was 1970, and on campus, talk of black power and black pride swirled around her. At first she felt self-conscious that she lacked the richly colored skin that was finally being celebrated in society, but her cousin’s prominence in civil rights efforts gave her a certain confidence. While Johnson was at Wilberforce, she told no one that she was adopted and no one that she was half white. “I was at an all-black school, so if anyone asked what I was, I just said, ‘Black.’ ”


In college, Johnson’s sense of herself as a black person intensified, immersed as she was in a cocooned world that celebrated the contributions and ambitions of the community. Most of Johnson’s professors were black, as were virtually all the students. She was surrounded by people who exuded pride in their identity.


All around her, classmates were sporting dashikis and other African garb, or the black beret and black leather jacket of the Black Panthers. Large Afros seemed ubiquitous, often with Afro picks decorated with a clenched black fist. Johnson stopped straightening her hair, which had required her to wrap her gentle curls around large rollers and sleep that way all night. By the early ’70s, straightened hair was passé for black women, and Johnson did her best to keep up. “I tried really hard to make a bush, an Afro, teasing it up and then putting bobby pins in to keep it up, but when it rained, my bush would just fall.” She bought an Afro wig with hair that stood five inches high and wore it daily. “No one ever asked if it was a wig,” she said, “but my best friends knew.” Soon after, she quit wearing it.


When Johnson was 22, she fell for a man she would later marry, but she never told him that she was half white or adopted. Her parents disapproved of how dark the man’s skin was, because in their experience, lighter complexion meant higher status and more options. When the young couple’s son was born in 1976, Johnson’s parents were relieved that his coloring was more like their daughter’s.


Johnson and her husband split up two years later. That same year, Johnson went back to school to get her nursing degree. In 1985, she married another man, a physical therapist; by then, both her parents had died. She told her husband what she had never told anyone else besides her son and a few close friends: She was adopted. His response was kind and supportive. Years later, he happened upon a conversation on “The Phil Donahue Show” about adoptees successfully requesting their original birth certificates from state officials. He called Johnson at work right away and encouraged her to request her birth certificate too. He gathered all the information she needed, and they sent it off together. When it arrived, she learned that her mother’s name was Ann D’Amico, so Johnson and her husband called D’Amicos they found in the Philadelphia phone book. Some who answered said they knew no Ann D’Amico. Others just hung up.


Still, when Johnson took the DNA test in 2015 at age 62, she was certain about what it would find and was sorry she wouldn’t be able to share the results with her husband, who had died years earlier. The results, which indicated a stunning level of precision, shocked Johnson. They said she was 45.306 percent Hispanic, 32.321 percent Middle Eastern, 13.714 percent European and 8.659 percent “other,” which included a mere 2.978 percent African.


“Two percent African?! I thought, Well, who am I then? I knew that at my age, I shouldn’t really care what people think, but I was embarrassed to show it to anyone besides my son and my cousin, who’s like a sister to me. I was afraid people would think I was a fraud. I was so disappointed, and in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe it, because how could I not be black? I’d lived black. I was black.”


Johnson in 1957 at age 4.

Johnson in 1957 at age 4.Illustration by Jules Julien



With the stupendous rise of DNA ancestry testing, academics have wondered how those genetic results affect people’s core identity. Our sense of self, of course, is built on much more than just the ethnic tribe we belong to. We forge our identity from the social and cultural milieus we’re raised in; the messages we get from parents, teachers and society about ourselves; the family lore and traditions passed down from generation to generation; and the experiences we have and hold dear. All of that is deeply woven into who we are.


“Our identity is what grounds us and gives our lives meaning,” said David Brodzinsky, emeritus professor of developmental and clinical psychology at Rutgers University, whose work focuses on identity and adoption. “That identity can be a motivating force or a debilitating one, depending on how we define ourselves and internalize the feedback we get from others. We spend our lives searching for self, though we each do that in different ways and at different times. It’s all about the desire to fill in empty spaces, to find connection, to know more about yourself.”


For children cut off from their origins because of a closed adoption or an unknown sperm or egg donor, those answers are harder to get. And if a person’s origin was a secret that they discover later in life, Brodzinsky said, they may feel that everything they knew about themselves and their roots was a lie. Even people who were raised by their biological parents can feel shaken when their DNA tests present results that don’t fit with their understanding of who they are.


Anita Foeman is one of the academics studying the effects of unexpected DNA results. Since 2006, she has tested roughly 3,000 people. Before her subjects receive their results, she asks them about their racial and ethnic identities, then follows up with them once the results are in. Her research subjects often conflate race and ethnicity — “If I’m this color, my ancestors must be from this place.” But ancestry tests look for genetic links to geographic regions, not to physical characteristics associated with race, like skin color, which is an unreliable indicator of ancestry. Foeman and researchers at other universities have found that people accept the results that suit their aspirations and often dismiss results that challenge their long-held core beliefs.


“We seek out and cultivate identities to fill our need to belong, and it’s through that lens of identity that we see and understand the world,” said Jay Van Bavel, a psychology professor at New York University who researches how group identities, values and beliefs shape the mind and brain. “So when you get information that challenges your identity, many people tune it out, just like we do with headlines and news stories when they counter our politics and belief system.”


When white test takers see results that indicate they have African ancestry, some, especially young people, welcome their newfound multicultural heritage, even when the percentage is small, which raises an interesting question: How much ancestry is enough to give someone the authority to claim that identity? Research also shows that some whites whose reports indicate African lineage conclude that it’s irrelevant, and still others, no matter their race or ethnicity, disbelieve results they didn’t expect. For example, many blacks and whites whose families have long claimed that some of their forebears were Native American dismiss DNA reports that say otherwise. And Asians, like whites, often rebuff results that indicate that their heritage isn’t pure. Some people take that to extremes: White nationalists who use DNA tests to prove their racial purity adamantly reject any non-European results. A professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and another researcher studied comments on the online white-supremacist forum Stormfront. They found that some posters who had taken DNA tests and were upset with their results argued that they were “rigged” to “spread multiculturalism” or that the non-European findings were merely “noise DNA.” Many African-Americans, meanwhile, upon seeing how much of their lineage is European, are not necessarily surprised or doubtful about the results, but they feel gut-punched by the bald reminder that even their genes carry slavery’s legacy. Underlying all these reactions is the question of identity: What do these results mean about who I am? How do these results fit with the stories I’ve long clung to that connected my past, my present and my future?




Ever since Johnson received her disorienting DNA results, she wondered if her saliva sample might have been accidentally mislabeled or she had been sent someone else’s results. But it turns out that the company that analyzed her DNA focuses on forensic genetics and legal paternity tests, which evaluate only a few segments of DNA, not the hundreds of thousands used by most ancestry-testing companies. (Foeman used this company for a minority of her research.) So this summer, when The New York Times offered to buy Johnson ancestry tests from more mainstream companies, AncestryDNA and 23andMe, she eagerly agreed.


Their tests determine ethnicity by analyzing segments of customers’ DNA that give clues to their ancient geographic origins. Five hundred to 1,000 years ago, before large-scale transcontinental migration, people who lived in the same region had similar genetics. Scientists have been able to identify distinct patterns of genetic variation among people whose ancestors hail from the same lands, which is easiest to do with populations that were geographically isolated, like Finns and Filipinos, or were insular, like Ashkenazi Jews. Ideally, ancestry-testing companies would compare customers’ DNA to that of people from premigration days. But given that impossibility, the companies use an imperfect proxy: people alive today who have a deep family tree in a particular geographic area, and sometimes a paper trail to prove it. Those people’s DNA becomes the company’s reference data set for that geographic area. When a segment of your DNA closely matches the data for that location, the company assigns you that ancestry. The more segments on your genome that match that genetic pattern, the larger your estimated percentage will be for that ancestry.


The larger the reference data set for any particular corner of the world, the better the resolution will be: suggesting that your ancestors aren’t, say, just from Europe but from Northwestern Europe, or more specifically from Ireland and Scotland. Each testing company builds its own reference data set, drawn primarily from its own customers, and each company also creates its own algorithm for assigning heritage. In other words, customers’ results are based on inferences and are merely an estimate, often a very rough one — something many test takers don’t realize and testing companies play down.


Still, Johnson, now 65, hoped the new tests would conclude that her genes aligned with who she believed herself to be. In early August, with the kits in hand, she walked around her apartment, trying to work up enough saliva to fill the little collection tubes. Afterward, Johnson was both eager for quick results and hesitant about what they might say. “You know,” she said, “even if the results are the same as they were before, I am still a black woman.”


Weeks later, her AncestryDNA report was posted. It marked more than a third of her ancestry as “low confidence,” meaning it couldn’t establish its ethnicity because her DNA didn’t sufficiently match the company’s reference data sets. She was disappointed. It’s a common experience for customers with non-European ancestry, because Africa and Asia are underrepresented in many companies’ data sets, in part because most of their customers — the building blocks of their reference set — are of European descent. Many companies are trying to remedy that by seeking DNA from people in regions underrepresented in the data set.


The rest of Johnson’s ethnicity, AncestryDNA said, broke down this way: 21 percent Europe South (but no percentage from Italy), 11 percent Caucasus, 10 percent Benin/Togo, 9 percent Mali, 8 percent Ivory Coast/Ghana and 6 percent Europe West. As Johnson heard the results, she teared up. “I’m so relieved to see the African part, that I really am a black woman.” (Neither AncestryDNA nor 23andMe includes a “Hispanic” category, because they, like most companies that search for heritage, focus on ancestry before Europeans and Africans ever arrived at what’s now called the Americas.)


I wondered how certain AncestryDNA was about Johnson’s percentages, which wasn’t readily apparent on the site. I called customer service and asked several representatives where on the website I could find the company’s confidence level. One said that any percentage not marked “low confidence” was 100 percent certain. Another said each percentage was 99 percent certain. When I asked that representative to check with a supervisor, she did, then returned to tell me that the company’s certainty was 99.7 percent. Those answers were confusing, because behind each of Johnson’s percentages was a range from which each ancestry point was drawn. For example, when we clicked on Johnson’s Benin/Togo segment, which had been assigned 10 percent of her ancestry, the site showed that the percentage of her DNA from those nations could be as low as zero and as high as 21. In fact, every one of her African links showed a range that started with zero, while her Europe South’s percent had a range of 9 to 33. Even the customer-service representative agreed that it was hard to fathom that the company could be so certain about the percentage when the range behind it ran to zero, which it did in four of the six geographic findings on Johnson’s report. Johnson and I asked if someone higher up could call us with better answers; the representative amiably said she would put in our request and assured us that the call would come within a few hours. None ever did.


AncestryDNA’s chief scientific officer, Catherine Ball, later told me that the company doesn’t provide a confidence level for each percentage on its personalized report for users, but it is 95 percent certain that the range behind each percentage is accurate. In other words, AncestryDNA was 95 percent confident that 9 to 33 percent of Johnson’s ancestry was from Europe South, that 4 to 16 percent was from Caucasus and that 0 to 58 percent was from Africa. And because that “certainty” is based on the reference data set and the algorithm the company uses, even that certitude evaporates if the data set or algorithm changes. “There is no ground truth here,” Ball said, “no ‘I guarantee that you are 22.674 percent Italian!’ These are all just statistical estimates. Every statistic has a lot of science and math behind it, and a lot of imperfection and room for improvement too.”


In September, AncestryDNA updated its reference databases and changed its algorithm, and overnight, Johnson’s ancestry report was completely different. Although all of her African percentages still showed that the figures could be as low as zero, this time, instead of being identified as 27 percent African, she was now 45 percent African, primarily from Cameroon, Congo and the Southern Bantu Peoples. And though the previous version showed no percentage or range for Italy, the new version said she was 49 percent Italian, with a range of just 48 to 51 percent. And that 95 percent certainty about ancestry from Caucasus? Gone. Caucasus doesn’t even show up on the updated report.


Johnson’s 23andMe results, on the other hand, said that she was 43.4 percent sub-Saharan African, 36.9 percent European (just over half of which was Italian), 12.8 percent Western Asian, 2.7 percent East Asian and Native American and 1.8 percent a combination of Western Asian and North African. The rest was unassigned. The company does not provide ranges, but it does give a confidence level for its result.


The ancestry-composition report from 23andMe, with each figure to the tenth of a percent, suggests a high level of precision, but the default conclusions are remarkably speculative; they’re only at the 50 percent confidence level, meaning that the ancestry composition you see on your report is as likely to be not true as true. If you dig down enough — I couldn’t figure out how, so I called for instructions — you can increase the confidence level to 90 percent (meaning your geographic assignments are 90 percent likely to reflect your true ancestry, based on the company’s data set and algorithm), though the figures locked at the top of the main page remain at 50 percent. At the 90 percent confidence level, 38 percent of Johnson’s ancestry was unassigned (compared with 2 percent at the 50 percent level). Her Italian ancestry dropped to 7.9 percent, from the 19.6 percent Italian that showed on her main page, and the specificity of her African heritage disappeared.


I asked Scott Hadly, a 23andMe spokesman, why the default is set at the 50 percent level, given that it’s so uncertain. “People want really specific information, down to which county in England they’re from. We would rather be more general in the results, than to give specific results that may not be accurate. So we try to give results that are interesting to them, which they can use to explore, to see if it tells them something informative. We’re not necessarily telling them, ‘This is what you are.’ We’re saying, ‘This is what the DNA says.’ ”


And yet, in a matter of weeks, Johnson’s African roots had bounced from 27 percent to 45 percent African — and her Italian roots had been reported as 0 percent, 49 percent and 20 percent. Through it all, of course, Johnson’s true ancestry, whatever it actually is, never changed.


Ethnicity is not the only area in which personal genomic testing companies have been criticized for insufficient transparency; public-health and consumer advocates have raised serious concerns about how companies use the avalanche of genetic data they’ve collected from their customers. The data haul is a potential gold mine for biotech firms, insurance companies, marketers, data brokers, law enforcement and, most of all, pharmaceutical companies. Drug companies have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into at-home-DNA-test companies worldwide, banking on all that genetic data, linked to vast crowdsourcing on individuals’ physical and psychological disorders, to slash the time and cost of developing new treatments and drugs, including ones tailored to an individual’s unique genetic makeup. Scientists have already made incredible progress, building on the advances by the Human Genome Project. Data from 23andMe customers has revealed spots on the genome that are linked to depression, Parkinson’s, lupus, inflammatory-bowel disease, allergies and some cancers, prompting Fast Company to name the business the second Most Innovative Health Company this year.


But critics say the business model that led to that heap of data is worrisome, putting at risk the privacy of the most precise identifier a person has — a concern that intensified after studies showed that it’s possible to reidentify individuals from anonymized genetic databases. In July, hackles were raised again when the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline invested $300 million in 23andMe and gained exclusive rights to its customers’ data. Much of the jump in DNA-test sales this past year or two has been a result of deeply discounted prices (they now cost about $99) and aggressive marketing, as companies try to lure evermore people to give up their personal genetic code. Last year on Black Friday, 23andMe’s discounted test was one of Amazon’s five best sellers; that same weekend, AncestryDNA reportedly sold a whopping 1.5 million kits. In 2017, in a consumer guide to DNA ancestry testing, the Council for Responsible Genetics wrote, “These come-ons promise more than they can deliver, ignoring problems with accuracy while obscuring a business model in which customers pay for the privilege of giving away valuable information to venture capitalists who expect it will make them very, very rich.”


Johnson hoped the new tests would conclude that her genes aligned with who she believed herself to be.Illustration by Jules Julien



In the last few years, just a few miles away from Sigrid Johnson, another woman’s origin story was unfolding. Her name is June Smith. Like Johnson, Smith had no idea as a child that the parents who were raising her weren’t the ones who created her. Smith’s neighbors knew that the 6-day-old baby who had suddenly appeared in the Smith house wasn’t born to the Smiths, and they also understood that fact was meant to remain private. So for years, neighbors knew more about Smith’s origins than she herself did. In their solidly black neighborhood in South Philadelphia, Smith stood out. Her skin was lighter than most, and her hair was wavy and long, “like a white girl’s,” she said. Though she had some good friends, she was bullied by others. “Automatically, I was a target, because darker people thought that a lighter-colored person is more privileged,” Smith told me. “I wasn’t black enough.”


Like Johnson, Smith learned startling news about herself when she was 16, when a neighborhood friend let slip that Smith’s parents weren’t her “real” parents. Smith marched inside to interrogate her mother, who chided her for asking such crazy questions. Eventually her parents confessed. They described a white Italian woman who handed over her 6-day-old infant after explaining that the father was black and adding: “I can’t take that baby home. If I do, they’ll kill her.” Smith told me: “I never knew if my mom added that last part, but I know she never wanted me to know that woman, so she may have said it to deter me. Then again, it was part of that era. Either way, I grew up with a lot of animosity toward that white woman, the idea that she didn’t want me just because I was black.”


Smith’s mother showed June her original birth certificate. It said she was Gail Moser. The news shook Smith’s understanding of who she was. The search for identity that’s so central to adolescence took on extra urgency. For starters, she said, “I couldn’t imagine a white woman gave birth to me.” So Smith did what she could to reconcile the two versions of her life. Her high school was predominantly white and disproportionately Italian-American, so “I began hanging out with white kids and started acting and dressing like a punk rocker, because I thought that’s what white kids did. I went through a total change. I told the white kids I was half Italian. I actually felt they were more accepting of me than my black peers were.”


Smith never denied she was black, but she didn’t embrace it either, once she found out she was half white. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s, as her self-esteem solidified, that she welcomed back her black identity. “I saw how society treated people of color, and I thought, You know, black people raised me. And so I became more conscious that, culturally, that’s who I am.” Had her birth mother raised her, she said, “I’d probably consider myself white, because I would have grown up in that Italian home. I would have grown up with Italian ways, Italian foods, Italian whatever. But because of how I was raised, African-American, this is who I am. And I accept that, and I’m proud of it.”


Although her cultural identity was clear by then, she still yearned to know about her biological family. She wrote and self-published her autobiography in 2014. The last line says, “I am the product of someone, but the reflection of no one.”


June Smith, Johnson’s sister, who also grew up in Philadelphia.Illustration by Jules Julien



AncestryDNA and 23andMe give their users the option to have their DNA profile uploaded to see if any genetic relatives pop up. Johnson did so, curious but expecting little. AncestryDNA promptly revealed two women whose DNA indicated that they were “close family,” which Johnson thought meant they were her first cousins. She reached out to them. One never responded. The other was June Smith.


In late August, Johnson and Smith connected by phone. After introducing themselves, Smith asked Johnson if she was adopted. Johnson said yes. Smith asked, “Was your biological mother Ann D’Amico?” Johnson was startled that this stranger would know such a thing. Smith then asked what her birth name was. When Johnson said, “Joan Moser,” Smith started to cry. She said, “I’ve been looking for Joan Moser — for you — all these years.”


Each knew she wasn’t really a child of Eric Moser, D’Amico’s white husband, despite his name being on their birth certificates. These babies had black fathers, presumably two different men, given that Johnson and Smith’s DNA results indicate that they are half siblings, not full ones.


Smith told Johnson that she discovered her first Moser connection in 2015: a half sister named Nancy Moser, who told her that D’Amico had six white children, all of whom D’Amico raised. Moser said that their parents had died, and that on D’Amico’s deathbed, their mother conceded that she had “other children” and added, “I wonder if they made it. … ”


Smith had been swiftly enfolded into the Moser family, a comforting but also confusing experience. The siblings had told her she wasn’t the only biracial child. They told her that three years before Smith’s birth — when at least some of D’Amico’s children were already in grade school — D’Amico gave birth to a baby she named Joan. After two or three months, according to Moser lore, someone told D’Amico’s white husband that Joan, whose skin was darker than her siblings’, couldn’t be his child: She was black, so she had to go.


Smith described how welcoming the Moser siblings had been and how the eldest told her she thought Smith might have a twin sister, though she has never shown up on Smith’s AncestryDNA page. But a few years back, AncestryDNA linked Smith to a niece whose deceased father, Thomas, was another biracial child of Ann D’Amico. The Mosers welcomed his family too.


After Smith and Johnson talked, Smith alerted the Moser siblings that Joan Moser was alive and well. Johnson was flooded with warm texts, phone calls and Facebook messages from the Moser family. “All at once,” Johnson said, “I got: ‘I’m your brother!’ ‘I’m your sister!’ ‘I’m your cousin!’ ‘I’m your sister’s daughter!’ ” Though they were total strangers, they embraced her as they had Smith, writing: “Hi honey. I’m one of your sisters. … Love you.” “I’m glad to know you’re in our family now.” And “I accept you no matter what color you are and I can’t wait to meet you. Just remember you are accepted into our family because you are family, and we love you.” When Johnson saw a photo of Thomas, she was stunned by how much he looked like her son, Ron. That family resemblance made the connection all the more real.


“It all hit me real hard,” Johnson told me. “I cried and boohooed like a baby.” She went from being an only child to a woman with a slew of siblings, nieces and nephews. After two days packed with catching up on 65 years of family, Johnson stopped answering calls and reading texts. Overwhelmed, she went to church to calm her soul and express her gratitude. And then she dove right back in with her new-old clan.


Since then, she still sometimes feels dizzy as she tries to replace a long-familiar identity with a welcome but much more complicated one. She marvels that for all those decades as a “single child,” she had siblings galore, living only a few miles away, and she never knew it. One of them even looked like her and had been told the same lie about her origins, and then the same gut-wrenching truth. Smith so deeply understood Johnson’s experience, because she had lived it herself, as a sister would. A real sister. Finally. Those realities were far more mind-bending than any of the ancestry findings, with their wildly different percentages and ephemeral certainties.


Johnson and Smith talk two or three times every day. “We’re stuck on each other,” Johnson said.


She sighed. “You turn 65, take a DNA test and find out your whole life is a lot different than you ever thought it was.


Why so many African Americans have Nigerian ancestry

Uwagbale Edward-EkpuAugust 10, 2020

A bas-relief of shackled enslaved people on the wall of the Seriki Abass Slave Museum in Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria

Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

A bas-relief of shackled enslaved people on the wall of the Seriki Abass Slave Museum in Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria

During the period of the transatlantic slave trade, more than 12.5 million enslaved persons were shipped from Africa to the Americas with about 3.5 million of them from Nigeria.


Today there are communities of people with Nigerian ancestry mostly in Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica who have retained some some of their ancestral beliefs and traditions.


In the largest DNA study of people of African ancestry in the Americas, researchers found an overrepresentation of Nigerian genetic ancestry in the United States and Latin America compared to the proportion of enslaved people shipped to these places from regions within modern day Nigeria. While the finds from the genetic study are largely supported by established narratives and historic records of the transatlantic slave trade, there were also inconsistencies.


The researchers put forward a new narrative explaining the variations in African ancestry in the Americas and how these variations were shaped by the transatlantic and a later intra-America slave trade whose impact was only recently understood.


The study which involved the DNA of 50,281 people of African descent in the United States, Latin America and western Europe was carried out by the consumer genetics company, 23andMe. The genetic data was analyzed against historical records of over 36,000 transatlantic slave trade voyages that happened between 1492 and the early 19th century.


The overrepresentation of Nigeria ancestry is said to be a result of intra-American slave trade between the British Caribbean and mainland Americas.


Previous genetic studies have shown that African Americans in the US have more African ancestry from populations that lived near present-day Nigeria than from populations that lived elsewhere in Atlantic Africa (Western and west central Africa). In agreement, it was shown in this study Nigerian as the most common ancestry within the US, the French Caribbean, and the British Caribbean.


This is despite, nearly half of the slaves who landed in the United States coming from Senegambia (Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal) and West-Central Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola), a considerable number of the remaining half had their origins in Ghana as well as Ivory Coast.


The overrepresentation of Nigeria ancestry reported was found to be a result of the later intra-American slave trade between the British Caribbean and the mainland Americas.


The intra-American trade which was an inter-colonial trade involving over 11,000 slave voyages within the Americas stretched as far as Boston to Buenos Aires and also Atlantic and the Pacific littorals. Intra-American trade records show that while the transatlantic voyages were going on, slave traders transferred nearly 500,000 slaves throughout the Americas with most intra-American voyages originating in the Caribbean.


AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Cape Coast Castle on the Gulf of Guinea in Cape Coast, Ghana where enslaved people from across Africa were traded

Though the British outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and started intercepting slave ships, the intra-American slave trade continued. The intra-American slave trade voyages on record sailed until the 1840s as there the slave trade continued in the US and between Spanish Caribbean colonies.


The researchers also reported Senegambia underrepresentation in the Americas such as in northern South America and Central America despite being the source of nearly half of the enslaved persons who landed at ports in the areas.


This underrepresentation was linked to the fact that Senegambia is one of the first African regions from which large numbers of people were enslaved in the Americas. It was presumed to have resulted in reduced African ancestry in the population. A presumed high mortality rate in the Americas amongst enslaved persons from Senegambia was also given a possible reason.


Also in the study, the United States and the British Caribbean were found to have the highest African ancestry in the Americas. Previous genetic studies have also reported a lower proportion of Latin Americans with African roots compared to the proportion of African Americans in the United States. This is despite historical records shows that over two-third of enslaved people who arrived in the Americas landed in Latin America with less than 5% landing in mainland North America.


This low representation was presumed to also be due to high mortality among enslaved people in Latin America and a high rate of intermarriage between them and native Americans resulting in reduced African ancestry in the population


Tracing ancestry is not easy for African Americans

December 16, 2015


WILKES-BARRE —What’s in a name?


Everything, that’s what.


Just ask Kwaku King Adjei-Frimpong.


We’ll call him King because that’s the name he uses. King, 29, is the volunteer coordinator at the Commission on Economic Opportunity, a job he’s had since November, 2011. He’s a Southern California kid, having grown up in Fullerton and attending UCLA.


This is about names and knowing who we are and where we come from.


Most of us, including King and I, know our ancestral history or can easily research it. We can trace family records and census records and go back as far as we want to discover who we are, where we came from and what great deeds our ancestors accomplished.


Not so for most African Americans.


King knows his family came from Ghana in West Africa. He has been to Ghana to visit his aunts, uncles and cousins. He knows much about his genealogy and someday, he said, he’ll delve further into his ancestral past.


Tony Burroughs, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Genealogy in Chicago and a former professor at Chicago State University, believes everybody should have the opportunity to know their personal history/genealogy.


Burroughs said knowing one’s own personal family history builds a bigger sense of pride.


“No doubt about it,” he said. “Often times, people don’t know what their ancestors have been through. Understanding their struggles gives you pride. You are standing on their shoulders. But you would never know about any of it if you didn’t go on that journey.”


Burroughs said the journey for African Americans is more difficult than for any other ethnicity. Even if people were able to trace their roots back to the shores of America, the journey becomes far more difficult for African Americans.


He said a lot of African Americans want to know where they came from in Africa, what their family names were and what their ancestors did through history.


He knows the challenges in doing that — he has managed to trace his own family tree back to the pre-Civil War era. He hopes to find all his family members who arrived at America’s shores; after that, the journey will get even more difficult.


Burroughs said there were no passenger lists when enslaved people left Africa and arrived in America like there were for European Americans.


“There were slave ship logs that treated Africans as cargo, not as passengers,” he said.


However, Burroughs said there were slave sales in America and there are records of those sales. Additionally, there were slave revolts on some ships and there are some names from those revolts. There are court records in Louisiana that indicate African ethnicity and locations where Africans originated in Africa. There are also runaway slave notices in newspapers that indicate African ethnicity and African origins.


Burroughs said tracing one’s genealogy can be easy, inexpensive and fun for any African American and they can go a long way before they hit any serious challenges of advanced genealogy.


“Even though I have not found my African origins, I have a dozen file cabinets full of information, have traced my family over 240 years, and have over 1,500 people in my database,” he said. “There is tremendous value in that and I have uncovered an illustrious family history that my family is proud of.”


Burroughs said slave trading was one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history.


“Their names were stripped from them, their language was stripped from them, their history was stripped from them. And all this was done to exploit them — to literally dehumanize them,” he said.


Burroughs said he and others are helping people trace their family history.


“Genealogy is a journey,” Burroughs said. “It’s not as simple as paying a fee and finding out all this information. Genealogy starts with ourselves and goes back one generation at a time. Remember, those Africans were stolen out of Africa and brought to America some 300 to 400 years ago.”


It will take a lot of work over a long period of time.


Burroughs said anyone looking to trace their genealogy should begin by talking to relatives, reviewing all documents available, looking through pictures and attics for clues.


“That’s the process I would recommend,” he said. “It will lead to pride, self-confidence and analytical thinking, which will be helpful in school and work.”


Back in 1995, I had the pleasure of meeting Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” the book that told the troubling story of slavery in the U.S. Haley traced his ancestors all the way back to The Gambia in Africa and a young man named Kunta Kinte.


Haley told me ABC-TV decided to film some scenes in The Gambia and when word of it got to the villages from where Kunta Kinte came, the leadership of those villages asked Haley to go there to tell the story. For generations, these villagers had heard stories of young warriors who left their villages and went into the jungle to hunt and gather supplies but never returned. For generations, they never knew what happened to those young men and women.


Haley provided that information. He was fortunate to be able to learn where he came from.


Everyone should be able to do the same.


Study Sheds Light on Regional Origins of Many Black Americans’ Enslaved Ancestors

Researchers point to legacy of slavery in shaping DNA of Black Americans today


Updated July 23, 2020 5:54 pm ET


The research, led by consumer-focused DNA-testing company 23andMe Inc. and researchers at the University of Leicester in the U.K., analyzed the genetic data of people in the Americas, Atlantic Africa and Western Europe. It draws from a data set of African-Americans that is larger than previously published similar studies to better understand patterns of African ancestry in the population today.


The study was published Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Among the findings, researchers noted that the proportion of people with African ancestry above 5% was far lower in Latin America than in the U.S., even though the majority of slaves disembarked at ports in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. They also discovered that enslaved African women contributed more DNA to the gene pool than African men, although what is known as the female gene bias was lower in North America than in other regions in the study.


The researchers found a lower-than-expected genetic correlation today between African-Americans and Senegambians, who lived in a region corresponding to Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal and made up a significant portion of people sent to North America. The investigators suggested that perhaps Senegambians suffered higher mortality because the men were forced to work on rice plantations in the Americas, where they were exposed to malaria.


Newsletter Sign-up

Coronavirus Briefing and Health Weekly

Get a weekly briefing about the coronavirus pandemic and a Health newsletter when the crisis abates.

The study combines types of information that scientists often examine separately, including shipping records that historians pore over and segments of DNA that population geneticists use to show human-migration patterns over millennia. The fusion of scientific and historical analysis in this way is more unusual, and incorporated insights from scholars who study and contribute to databases of slave voyages.


Even though the study appears to offer new insights, some cautioned that there are gaps in historical records about slavery, and that the DNA samples from Africans are still not large enough to reflect the genetic diversity of the continent.


“Integrating historical records and large amounts of genetic data is hard to do and has the power to offer unique insights,” said Simon Gravel, assistant professor of human genetics at McGill University in Montreal, who has published research on African-American genomic diversity but wasn’t involved in the current study.


Regions in the study where enslaved populations originated


Bight of


West Central


Source: ‘Genetic Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Americas,’ 23andMe and the University of Leicester, U.K.

The data set consists of more than 20,000 people with at least 95% European ancestry, more than 27,000 individuals in the Americas with at least 5% African ancestry and 1,917 Africans with at least 95% African ancestry. Most are 23andMe customers, a company spokesman said.


The company sells DNA-collection kits that customers spit into and send in. 23andMe provides analysis on ancestry, health and personalized traits such as cheek dimples and earwax type. The company’s database is believed to comprise DNA information from more than 10 million people. 23andMe has struck deals with drug makers and worked with researchers who want to mine the data for scientific studies and other projects.


The investigators said their findings point to a genetic landscape of the Americas that generally fits with what is understood from historians’ study of shipping documents, records of slave sales and personal accounts. But in certain instances, the genetics were different than expected, opening potential new research questions.


The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration of people in history, involving more than 12 million people over hundreds of years. Many people died along the way. According to the shipping records cited, of those who survived the perilous sea voyage, 3% to 5% disembarked in mainland North America.


The study had fewer than 2,000 African participants, a number that doesn’t represent the full diversity of Africa, said some researchers. “There are a lot of assumptions when we make large inferences and take limited samples from certain areas. We need to remember this is a very small slice of the pie,” said Janina Jeff, a population geneticist who wasn’t involved in the study and who hosts the “In Those Genes” podcast on genetics and the histories of African descendants.




To analyze the representation in the Americas of people from regions of Africa, researchers looked at genetic data of populations in the Americas who have at least 5% African ancestry and compared those with people in Africa who have at least 95% African ancestry.



Genetic connections between regions


Percentage of ‘identity by descent,’ or IBD, that is shared


Regions of


the Americas


West Central Africa


Percentage of IBD shared by those in West Central Africa and C. South America is 40.5%


Regions of




Note: identity by descent, or IBD, involves finding DNA segments shared by individuals who have a common ancestor.


Source: ‘Genetic Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Americas,’ 23andMe and the University of Leicester, U.K.



There were limited DNA samples available from Southeast Africa, the study pointed out. Investigators also included the genetic data found in public research databases, from the researchers’ work in Angola, and from previous studies in Congo and Sierra Leone, and of Khoe-San speaking people. And the researchers noted that the shipping records provide information on numbers of people deported by region, but not their ethnic or linguistic identities.




What interesting discoveries have you made exploring your genetic history? Join the conversation below.


Researchers highlighted a discrepancy they found between people with African ancestry in Latin America and in the U.S. The study noted that an estimated 10.1 million enslaved people were taken to Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Yet researchers found the proportion of people with African ancestry above 5% was far lower in Latin America than in the U.S.


The researchers believe the anomaly might be connected with another difference between the regions. Although historians have done research on the sexual exploitation of enslaved African women, the genetic data suggests that “the exploitation was different depending on the region people ended up in,” said Steven Micheletti, a population geneticist at 23andMe and an author of the study. “Genetics revealed what is not obvious in the historical literature.”


African women contributed much more to the gene pool than African men even though more than 60% of enslaved people brought to each region were men. The 23andMe researchers estimated that for each African man in Central and South America and the Latin Caribbean, about 15 African women bore children. The female gene bias was found in North America too but at a lower rate.


The geneticists suggested the regional differences could be explained by historians’ examination of national policies in Latin American countries that promoted the dilution of African ancestry through reproduction with Europeans. In contrast, the researchers suggested that the lesser African female sex bias in the former British colonies might be due to policies that coerced enslaved people to have children with each other as a way of augmenting the enslaved population.


Dr. Jeff, the geneticist, said the paper wasn’t clear enough about the role of rape. “When someone glosses over something important like sexual violence or throws it in there with other things as if it wasn’t the main thing, it can feel like a disservice,” she said.


Others pointed to issues of access and data collection. Dr. Gavel of McGill said because the data was collected by a private company rather than an academic institution, the full data set isn’t available to researchers who might want to ask their own questions. “What they did is of great value, but it is a private data set. The data is not available to the community,” Dr. Gavel said.


Joanna L. Mountain, senior director of research at 23andMe and one of the investigators on the study, said the restrictions are based on consent and privacy forms that customers signed. She said the researchers provide aggregated data but can’t share individual-level data without the explicit consent of the participants.


Jada Benn Torres, director of the Laboratory of Genetic Anthropology and Biocultural Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said another issue relates to the makeup of the 23andme customer population in the study. “How representative are they of the rest of the general populace of people of African descent?” Dr. Benn Torres said.


Genomic research has been skewed to people of European ancestry. There is mistrust among some African-Americans about the potential misuse of DNA test results after a history of medical research conducted without their consent.


Dr. Benn Torres also said some of the historical explanations offered on the variations found between regions in this study are plausible, but more research was needed.“There are richer stories here,” she said. “Now we have to dig even deeper and pull out the reasons why.”


I cannot recommend African Ancestry’s DNA tests. African Ancestry, Inc., a genetic testing company targeting consumers of African descent, claims to use “the world’s largest database of African DNA lineages to determine your country and ethnic group of origin, all with a simple swab of your cheek.” But the truth is not so simple.


Ethnicity is a complex concept, a concept not as rooted in genetics as it is in sociopolitical and cultural constructs. There is no DNA test that can assign anyone to an African ethnic group or what some refer to as an “African tribe.”


Secondly, African Ancestry tests too few DNA markers to determine much of anything, much less substantiate their marketing claims. African Ancestry tests 8 Y-chromosome DNA STRs and about 350-370 mitochondrial DNA markers. That number of markers is insufficient for delivering the level of specificity that the marketing promises.


Moreover, the tests, which cost far more than their value, sell on the basis of deceptive and disturbing promotion practices. An effective marketing machine reliant on half-truths, celebrity reveals, and the lack of genetic literacy and critical thinking among the general public has made this company profitable. Notice how African Ancestry discusses none of the scientific details of their analysis on their website. In misleading advertisements declaring themselves better, bolder, and “blacker” than other direct-to-consumer DNA test companies, African Ancestry reminds prospective customers that the “100% black owned” firm “destroys all genetic information” and enables users to reverse “the original identity theft,” trading on feelings of racial dissension and mistrust among some members of the African American community. The results from African Ancestry consist largely of a certificate claiming that one “shares ancestry with” one or more African ethnic groups from whom the company has received DNA samples.


What African Ancestry marketing literature has historically failed to explain is that, in the vast majority of cases, no single African ethnic group has a monopoly on a genetic signature. African Ancestry avoids explaining that the results of their low resolution tests should show that one “shares ancestry with” many different ethnic groups across the continent. African Ancestry has evaded discussions of how some Africans enslaved and transported to the Americas during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries came from ethnic groups that do not exist now as they did then. African Ancestry, by virtue of omitting these caveats to their overhyped, overrated, and overpriced results, has earned the “scam” moniker among experienced genetic genealogists.


Over the years, African Ancestry customers have delivered testimony expressing disappointment, embarrassment, anger, and family humiliation after receiving less than accurate results. The most common word in these negative reactions: useless. African Ancestry offers no DNA matches and little to no historical context for the results. One cannot use these results to advance genealogical research.


African Ancestry customers previously did not even receive haplogroup determinations with their results; customers had to struggle with rude service to get the haplogroup assignment from the company. That haplogroup assignment African Ancestry delivered was often far less precise than that supplied by other companies who charge far less. In some cases, the African Ancestry haplogroup assignment or the interpretation of that assignment was completely erroneous. Some of the company’s customers were told that they could not get an African ethnicity report because their Y-DNA or mtDNA was not of African origin. Those same customers would test with other companies that test more Y-DNA and mtDNA markers than African Ancestry and learn that their Y-DNA or mtDNA was, in fact, African. For this level of service, customers should not pay anything, much less premium prices.


Professor Henry Louis Gates Junior’s misinterpreted results rank among the most disconcerting examples of African Ancestry’s low quality analysis. African Ancestry’s Rick Kittles told Professor Gates his Y-DNA signature was Egyptian. However, more comprehensive Y-DNA testing revealed Professor Gates had the same Y-DNA haplogroup as Niall of the Nine Hostages, suggesting European ancestry on his direct paternal line. This discrepancy inspired Professor Gates to partner with Family Tree DNA to start African DNA, a company that would provide higher resolution DNA testing for African Americans and include DNA relatives – the most accurate and useful data in genetic genealogy.


Ironically, Gates never used nor promoted his own company, African DNA, on any of his genealogy television programs. Instead, Gates continued to use and promote African Ancestry’s inferior products, before finally shuttering African DNA several months ago. African Ancestry continues to survive, despite the spurious results of their tests, because many who recognize the company’s questionable tactics and the products’ lack of efficacy remain silent and demand silence from others. Now, the industry has lost a far more affordable, more valuable alternative in African DNA. Far too many will fall prey to the marketing messages that have become African Ancestry’s siren song and waste time and resources on a test of no utility or value.


I could never recommend testing with African Ancestry; their racial marketing practices, low resolution products, and high prices raise ethical questions.


Anyone seeking to investigate their Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA for genealogical research ought to respectively pursue Y-DNA (at least 37 markers) or full mitochondrial sequence testing at Family Tree DNA, join relevant haplogroup projects on Family Tree DNA, and research one’s results in academic literature.


My advice on African Ancestry: Steer clear.


‘It made me question my ancestry’: does DNA home testing really understand race?

Dubious results, emotional fallout, privacy concerns: inside the £7.7bn industry that promises to tell you who you really are


Georgina Lawton

Illustration of a woman examining strands of DNA joining her to a couple and a man

Illustration: Hannah Ekua Buckman

Last year, I did what 12 million people from all over the world have done and surrendered my spit to a home DNA-testing company. I hoped a MyHeritage test would bring me the peace I needed; my Irish mother had never been able to give me any information about my biological father. Raised by her and my white dad, I’d always longed for a country to attribute my blackness to, or for help answering the ubiquitous “Where are you from?” question. I’d spent years making up exotic-sounding combinations to justify my appearance (some days Jamaican-Spanish-Swedish; other days half Brazilian, or half Iranian). But, at 24, I was done with occupying a box of black ambiguity. Could I finally get a clear answer?


The results arrived by email on a summer’s day last year. I clicked on the “ethnicity estimate” link, which offers an analysis of DNA by country, my heart pounding as I scanned the digital map.


The test showed that my blackness comes from Nigeria; 43% of my DNA, in fact. Then there’s 1% from Kenya, and the rest from Great Britain and Ireland (55%), as well as eastern Europe (1%). I’d often been told I looked east African, or mixed with multiple countries, so I was surprised by what was nearly a 50:50 split.


I began to think my grandmother had had an affair, even my mother. My imagination ran riot. I wouldn’t do it again

I had no cultural knowledge of Nigeria; should I now start claiming it as my own? Did the results mean my very distant ancestors were Nigerian, or that my biological father was probably from there? Why did my features not resemble a typical west African? I felt more confused than ever.


This wasn’t quite what the adverts had promised. Targeted marketing for home-testing kits shows smiling (often mixed-race) models under the banner “find out your ethnicity”, or urges people to book holidays based on their “DNA story”. It’s estimated the industry will be worth a staggering £7.7bn by 2022; in the last year alone, market leader AncestryDNA pulled in $1bn in revenue.


While DNA home tests are more popular than ever, people are starting to raise questions about what happens after the results land. Concerns about the storage of sensitive genetic information were highlighted recently, when an open-source DNA testing site, GEDmatch, was used by the police to identify California’s Golden State Killer. As well as privacy concerns, there’s the emotional fallout of receiving confusing or life-changing results. Identities that have been cherished by families for generations can be dismantled overnight.


Ayshah Blackman, in her 50s, is of Caribbean descent and lives in London. She had always known two things about her family: that they had Indian heritage, and that her father had another daughter he wasn’t in touch with. Last year, with his permission, she set about trying to track down her half-sister through the UKTV show The Secrets In My Family.


Blackman was encouraged to take the AncestryDNA test as part of the programme, and thrilled to eventually connect with her long-lost sibling, living on the other side of London. But she was shocked by the details of the results; according to the test, Ayshah had no Indian DNA at all. “It made me question my ancestry, the fact that I might not be what I thought I was. I began to think that my grandmother had had an affair, that my mother had an affair. My imagination ran riot,” she tells me.


Blackman’s AncestryDNA test traced her roots to west Africa. “That wasn’t a surprise,” she says, recalling the mix of Benin, Togo and other parts of west Africa that made up 43% of her DNA. She was also 13% Scandinavian, and parts Native American and British. “But Indian wasn’t on my chart – I spent months agonising about it,” she says.


For people of African descent, whose individual and collective histories are blurred by the legacies of colonialism, slavery and rape, what they know about their identities is particularly important. Blackman felt that one of the narratives woven through her family had been broken.


“That little thing of not having any Indian ancestry is now sitting on my shoulder – I may not be as much a part of this tribe as I thought I was,” she says. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.”


YouTube is full of videos of people revealing their DNA results, often with “click me” headlines such as What Am I? and I Was Lied To – My Shocking Results. They film themselves “unboxing” test kits like a new toy and taking cheek swabs, and then cut to footage in which they analyse their results. Many seem astonished by what they find, and begin to question whether their parents have been unfaithful, or whether they have been misled about their heritage; some clips are heartbreakingly difficult to watch.


Shana Dennis, 34, decided to make a YouTube video after taking her test. She was born in India but adopted at six weeks by a family in Australia. Wanting to find out more about her racial mix, she took a test from AncestryDNA, which analysed her as mainly central Asian in origin (44%), with links to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Dennis uploaded a video going through the geographical breakdown of her results. When commenters suggested she try other DNA companies to verify the findings, she decided to do just that; like several others, AncestryDNA’s website allows you to access your “raw DNA file” and send it to different companies for analysis.


Each site has produced wildly different results. DNA.Land suggests Dennis’s biggest country match is China, with 29%. WeGene puts that figure at closer to 58%, while MyHeritage suggests that most of her DNA comes from Mongolia, a 21% match. “The results caused even more confusion,” Dennis says. “Most think I’m Nepalese. Others have argued I’m not.”


For those who are already discriminated against​​, having their genome used against them​ may have serious implications

Rachel Nye, 30, from London, was also left without a clear answer. Nye’s mother has a black mother and a white father, but Nye has never known exactly where her grandmother was born.


“My nana died in 2008 but was always very vague about where she came from. She often gave different answers,” Nye says. “Some days she was British-born, other days she was from Barbados, some days she was African. I remember seeing two passports – one of them was Kenyan – but the names and dates of birth were different.”


Nye’s 23andMe test analysed her as 76.9% European, offering a breakdown that included the UK, France and Scandinavia. Her black heritage was less detailed; she’s 21.9% sub-Saharan African – 13.9% west African, 5.1% east African and 0.4% “African hunter-gatherer”.


Nye says she was frustrated by the lack of country breakdown within Africa; despite the fact the vast majority of the world’s genetic variation comes from the continent, DNA testing companies often have very few samples from Africa.


23andMe has launched a number of initiatives to redress this. In 2016, the company launched the African Genetics Project, offering free DNA kits to people with all four grandparents born in the same African country, or from the same ethnic or tribal group. Now it has launched the Populations Collaborations Program, which encourages researchers studying remote populations to submit their data to the website.


But questions have been raised about the ethics of European and American scientists harvesting genetic information from Africans and African scientists for economic gain. 23andMe has announced plans to share the test results of five million customers with GlaxoSmithKline, the drugs giant, in order to facilitate the design of new drugs. (Users are asked if they want to participate in scientific research when they sign up.)


Privacy is a major concern for everyone using these sites, but perhaps more so for those from minority backgrounds. For those who are already discriminated against, having their genome used against them – for example, in the criminal justice system – could have serious implications. AncestryDNA’s privacy agreement states it can only share a customer’s DNA with research partners with explicit consent; but it could disclose personal information to law enforcement if requested. (An internal report revealed that in 2017, AncestryDNA received 34 law enforcement requests, and provided information to 31.) MyHeritage asks customers to email if they want their sample removed from its database, though a representative tells me that the company does not sell or share DNA data with third parties. “We would need the explicit permission of our users – we do not own anyone’s DNA”, I am told on the phone. In 2010, to illustrate the privacy risks, researchers from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts identified nearly 50 people who had participated in an anonymous genomic study, based on publicly accessible information.


There are many scientific limitations to the home DNA test. “These companies aren’t actually testing your ancestry at all,” says Mark Thomas, professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London. “They’re problematic in their claims to be able to infer an individual’s ancestry.”


There are a few reasons for this. First, the genetic information these DNA testing companies hold is based on living populations. When you send your spit off in a little tube, it is specific snippets, or markers, in your genome (the total collection of DNA that resides in your cells) that are being analysed, and then compared to the markers of others who are good representatives for distinct regions or ethnicities around the world. But as Thomas notes, the companies are only looking at very recent samples, from a relatively small group, in one specific database. “They are just saying: ‘If I wanted to make your genome, I could pull bits of your DNA from people all over the world who are around today. And this is just one way I could do it,’” he says.


The databases are skewed towards different parts of the world, too. “23andMe has more American customers, and AncestryDNA has more British and Australian,” Thomas explains. “And none of these companies asks: ‘What do we know about the genetics of the past, and which of those past inferred genetic clusters do we get our ancestry from?’ They are giving us what the market wants, not what the genetics tells us.”


There’s also the question of just how much information is passed down through a person’s DNA. Thomas explains that we probably inherit very few genes from our ancestors; DNA is inherited in “chunks” that break up the further back in time you go. “You start with two parents, then four grandparents, then eight great-grandparents, it goes to 16, 32 and so on. And by the time you go 10 generations back, there are ancestors from whom you inherit no DNA.”


I ask Dr Yaniv Erlich, who works for MyHeritage, how the company’s “ethnicity estimate” is created. He says they define good DNA “representatives” for English people as having “at least all of their eight great-grandparents born in England”. He believes you can “estimate that present-day individuals probably reflect populations from about 200 to 300 years ago, as they never got DNA of any other ethnicity. Evolution is not acting fast enough to create any substantial changes.”


Let’s be ­honest, these companies are using ­ethnicity as a nice, ­polished ­euphemism for race

But as the American academic Sheldon Krimsky and journalist David Cay Johnston explain in their online consumer guide, Ancestry DNA Testing And Privacy, markers maketh the result. “Today’s markers do not necessarily match the markers of 400 years ago, during the African colonisation and enslavement period,” they write. In other words, markers are inconsistent; sometimes they’re passed on and sometimes they’re not. There might be a lot of genetic markers Nigerians share, for example, but that are not necessarily exclusive to them.


Thomas tells me it is very possible that my birth father could be from anywhere, but have parents or grandparents who are Nigerian, or are from a “combination of countries with broad genetic similarities to Nigerians”.The bigger question is, how much should we connect geography and identity anyway? An individual’s “ethnicity” is largely based on their own perception of cultural and social traits, not which geopolitical borders they were born between. And there aren’t universal genetic traits within certain groups, Thomas points out.


“Let’s be honest, these companies are using ethnicity as a nice, polished euphemism for race, and they’re trying to define biological races using this genetic data. That in itself is shifty,” he says. “If genetics has taught us one thing over 30 years or so, it’s that there are no clearcut biological racial categories. Everyone in the world is racialised in some way. But rather than overturning these outdated notions of race, these companies are servicing them instead – presumably because they get better profits.”


When I ask the home-testing sites about linking the language of ethnicity to science, they offer varying responses. An AncestryDNA spokesperson told me that “analysing DNA to determine a person’s ethnic breakdown is at the cutting edge of science”, explaining that they have “thousands” of DNA samples from around the world. “Each is from a specific location and most are accompanied by a documented family tree indicating deep heritage in a particular region.” A 23andMe spokesperson tells me the company does “not refer to ethnicity” in its analysis, instead calling it an “ancestry composition”. Yaniv Erlich of MyHeritage says: “Ethnicity is not encoded in someone’s genes, but this human-made construct can be in correlation with genetic variations. We use this correlation to infer the ethnicity.”


After I got over the initial shock of my own test results, I began to explore the rest of the MyHeritage site. I was amazed to find that I could contact a fourth cousin on my biological father’s side – my first black relative – and that she lived in the same city as me. We plan to meet up, and my quest to find out more about my biology continues.


But I know that decoding my DNA is only one chapter of my history. Ancestry is a legacy, not a bloodline. Our genetic script may be one of the most valuable things we own, but it’s never the whole story.


This article was amended on 11 August 2018 to correct Golden Gate Killer to Golden State Killer; and to include a missing “not” in the sentence: Why did my features not resemble a typical west African?

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy