Are you interested in learning more about your African American heritage? Advancements in African American DNA testing may provide answers when historical records don’t exist.
In 2006, PBS aired a television program called African American Lives in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. explored the genealogies of prominent African-Americans. In this mini-series, Gates used traditional genealogical research in combination with DNA analysis to reveal secrets about his guests’ family histories.
As a genetic genealogist myself, this series was both awe-inspiring and eye-opening. It was a key factor in my own decision to pursue a career in genetic genealogy. To think that each one of us carries a biological record of our ancestry in our cells intrigued me. That DNA could tell many African-Americans the approximate origins of their direct-line maternal and paternal ancestors fascinated me. I learned that even if the lack of historical records may obscure our vision of our ancestors’ lives, the biological record in our DNA can still reveal precious clues regarding their origins and history.
Genetic genealogy has grown dramatically since 2006 when African American Lives first aired, and with its growth, DNA testing has gradually become a common and often indispensable element of African-American research.
The field of African-American genealogy is wrought with challenges. Beyond the emotional difficulty of the subject matter – dealing with records which describe the captivity and subjugation of human beings – African-American genealogical research is also difficult because of a scarcity of records. Add to this the widespread record destruction in the Southern United States in general, and tracing African ancestors can be a formidable task. This is where DNA testing comes in! Following are the three types of genetic testing and their uses:
The Y-chromosome is inherited along a line of direct paternal descent. Males receive this type of DNA from their father who received it from his father and grandfather in an unbroken chain. Occasional mutations on the Y-chromosome from one generation to another help to distinguish different Y-chromosome lineages. These lineages are grouped into larger groups of lineages called haplogroups. Y-DNA haplogroups most commonly found in Africa include A, B and E, as well as subgroups of other haplogroups.
Many African-Americans, when they perform Y-DNA testing, discover that their Y-chromosome is of European origin. This has been attributed to the common practice among slave-owners of fathering children by their female slaves. Since the Y-chromosome often follows the same patrilineal inheritance of surnames, Y-DNA testing can often connect African-Americans to the slave-holding ancestor to whom their direct-line paternal ancestor belonged. This is a key piece of information in traditional African-American research.
One prominent case, and one of the hallmark studies in the history of genetic genealogy, showed that Thomas Jefferson was in fact the father of his slave, Sally Hemings’ children. A male descendant of Sally’s youngest child, Eston, was found to share the same unique Y-chromosome signature as a descendant of Thomas’ uncle, Field Jefferson. This discovery caused a shift in the consensus among biographers and historians of Thomas Jefferson and consequently changed the way we view American history.
Though many African-American males find that their direct-line paternal ancestry is European, about 65% of African-American males have Y-chromosomes that trace back to Africa. Subgroups of common African haplogroups are more frequently found in specific African populations and can sometimes be used to identify the likely origins of an individual’s direct-line paternal African ancestor.
Like the Y-chromosome, mitochondrial DNA is passed on intact from generation to generation, and occasional mutations distinguish different lineages into mtDNA haplogroups. The most common mtDNA haplogroups in Africa are haplogroups L1, L2 and L3. Unlike the Y-chromosome, which is inherited along the direct paternal line, mitochondrial DNA is inherited along the direct maternal line. Every individual receives mtDNA from their mother, who inherited it from her mother and grandmother in an unbroken maternal line.
Most African-Americans, when they test their mtDNA, discover that it traces back to Africa through haplogroup L. Some find that it traces back into Native American lineages including haplogroups A,B,C or D. Like Y-DNA, some mitochondrial sub-haplogroups are only found in high numbers in specific areas of Africa. Therefore, mitochondrial DNA testing can sometimes suggest likely geographic origins of a direct line maternal African ancestor.
In the last season of Finding Your Roots on PBS, two African-American guests discovered unique information about their mtDNA. Dancer and actress Khandi Alexander’s mtDNA revealed shared direct-line maternal ancestry with individuals living in modern-day Ethiopia in eastern Africa – a very unique result for someone with African-American ancestry, since most slaves came from West Africa.
Political activist Ben Jealous discovered that his mtDNA had two mutations that were very specific to individuals living in Madagascar. From this result it was determined that his direct line maternal African ancestor was most likely a woman who was brought on one of just 17 slave ships which transported slaves from Madagascar to Virginia and New York between 1678 and 1721. Since Ben’s closest mitochondrial DNA matches are all African-American and Madagascan, his other African-American matches also likely have direct-line maternal ancestors who arrived on one of these same slave ships during the same time period.
Each person receives half of their autosomal DNA from their mother, half from their father, and about half the previous amount for each subsequent generation.
When individuals test their autosomal DNA, they are given a breakdown of ethnicity estimates and compared to a database of other individuals who have tested. These ethnicity estimates show the percentages of DNA that originate from different areas of the world. After comparison to the database, each individual is given a list of genetic cousins which are determined by the amount of DNA that they share in common with other test takers.
Ethnicity results typically deal with large population clusters, but the DNA testing companies do not offer more specific descriptions of tribes or localities and, as a result, are not as useful for identifying the specific areas of Africa where a person’s ancestors may have come from.
Match lists, on the other hand, can provide more specific information about ancestral origins of African-American ancestors. Through lists of genetic cousins, it is often possible to identify the slave-holding European families who may be among an African-American’s own ancestors.
As more individuals test, and as DNA testing becomes a worldwide phenomenon, African-Americans may begin to see more matches who still reside in Africa. In 2013, 23andMe announced the African Ancestry Project, which offered free tests to individuals with four grandparents from Sub-Saharan Africa, in hopes that this might help African-Americans connect with the largest source populations during the transatlantic slave trade.
Even now, autosomal test results for African-Americans have begun to reshape the way we view race relations and African-American ancestry in the United States. In January 2015, 23andMe published an article in the American Journal of Human Genetics, which used the genetic data of 160,000 23andMe customers, including more than 5,000 self-identified African-Americans. Through this study, 23andMe mapped levels of Native American, African, and European ancestry among these self-reported groups. They found that many individuals who had self-identified as African-American had at least 1% Native American DNA. They also found that on average, African-American individuals had about 24% ethnic admixture from European populations. Among other populations they found that on average, Latinos had 6% African admixture and Europeans had .19% African admixture. However, there were certain regions of the United States where these percentages were much higher. Other studies have also shown various admixture percentages among Caribbean, Central American and South American countries.
These results and others nuance our views of racial identity in the United States. For example, Henry Louis Gates, in the last season of Finding Your Roots, discovered that one of his own European ancestors was a white man by the name of William Mayle, who immigrated to Virginia from England. In 1826, he emancipated and publicly “married” his slave Nancy, despite the fact that interracial marriage was then illegal in Virginia. Mayle and his wife eventually went on to found a large community of mixed-race families in West Virginia known as the Chestnut Ridge People. Later in life, Mayle himself, who began life as an Englishman, was variously recorded as white, mulatto and colored. Though perhaps an isolated case, Mayle’s experience varies from the commonly assumed situations of coercion and rape which are the most common explanations for European admixture among African-Americans.
The Ideal Tool
Genetic genealogy is the ideal tool for helping African-Americans connect with their African, European and Native American heritage. DNA tests can help people connect with their African roots through unique Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups. They can help researchers identify their European slave-holding ancestors, and they can help them connect with and contribute to the national narrative of American history. As genetic genealogy becomes an increasingly integral part of African-American family history research, additional discoveries will likely surface that change and contribute to our views of family histories, national histories and world history.
Our resident DNA experts would be happy to help you analyze and make sense of the results you get from any of the major DNA testing companies. Get started by requesting a free quote today.
 Henry Louis Gates Jr. African-American Lives, PBS, February 1-8 2006, Television.
 Eugene A. Foster, et al. “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child” in Nature. 1998 396 (6706): 27-28
 CeCe Moore, “Telling Stories with Mitochondrial DNA,” Finding Your Roots Blog, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/blog/telling-stories-mitochondrial-dna/ (accessed 11 February 2015).
 ScottH, “23andMe’s African Ancestry Project” 23andMeBlog http://blog.23andme.com/23andme-research/23andmes-african-ancestry-project/ (accessed 11 February 2015) published 1 November 2013
 Katarzyna Bryc, et al. “The Genetic Ancestry of African-Americans, Latinos and European Americans across the United States” American Journal of Human Genetics. 2015 January 8; 96(1): 37-53.
 Henry Lewis Gates Jr. “Decoding Our Past Through DNA” Finding You Roots Season 2, PBS, 2014.
Charles Holman says
Great article that I hope many people will read. I’m not sure many African Americans are aware of how diverse our roots are even after Professor Gates’ groundbreaking work. After testing my own Y-DNA, I began to test my other male cousins along other branches of my family tree other than my direct male line. I found one Y-DNA European line after another (including me). Although I found several of the white male slaveholders through Y-DNA, on one line in particular I was struck by the familiar pattern of a white slaveholder who had a black female slave and two mulatto children way back in the 1700s. I don’t know who these slaves were by name and never knew anything about them until the Y-DNA led me to seaching. When I thought about the reasons for this and the repeated frequency of this, over and over in my family tree, it caused an emotional reaction I wasn’t expecting. I thought to myself, how sad, how widespread and how enlightening.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
It’s wonderful to hear that you’ve made so much progress using Y-DNA testing! And it is, like you said, a sad history to unravel – very humbling.
Steven Welts says
This can’t be right. My DNA shows me to be 100% African with no European Ancestry but it still shows me to have the Y-DNA Haplogroup
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Hi Steven. In this case, ethnicity admixture results focus on autosomal DNA. Because of the random nature of autosomal DNA inheritance, after about 6-7 generations, it is entirely possible to not inherit autosomal DNA from particular ancestors. All of us inherit at least some DNA from each of our third great grandparents, but after that, our ancestors begin falling off our genetic family tree. Since ethnicity admixture estimates are based on autosomal DNA, it is entirely possible to have 100% African (or any other type) admixture, and still have a Y-DNA haplogroup that is European (or African or Native American or Jewish or any other ethnicity).
verman dorman says
African American European Y-DNA is common but Native American Y-DNA and mtDNA is still very rare in African Americans.
Elly Catmull says
Fantastic article, Paul. Helping our clients learn about their African American heritage is one of the most challenging, and rewarding, parts of this job.
Warren Bailey says
This article is extremely inspirational. I intend to pursue this ancestral identification methodology. I hope this practice grows exponentially.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Yes, it’s a very exciting avenue to aid with tough genealogy research. I hope it goes well for you! After testing we’re always happy to help people understand the results and continue the discovery with ancestral documents.
Allison McCord says
Thank you for carefully explaining and distinguishing the three types of DNA tests and what results can be expected from each. Writing the article through the lens of African American research was particularly enlightening.
Elisabeth Meier says
My son in law is black with his mother and father coming from Jamaica. I am doing genealogy and asked him for his mother and father’s names. He hasn’t given them to me yet but not too
long ago he said he really wishes he could find his ancestors. Would DNA help him and if he did DNA testing through My Heritage or Ancestry would that be where to start. If not these two genealogy sites which I belong to, where would he get the best results in his DNA sample.
Hi Elisabeth! Testing through either of those sites can be a start. 23andme (available through MyHeritage) would likely be your best bet for now, though an autosomal test through AncestryDNA would also be helpful. Success in getting leads on his genealogy will depend on whether any genetic cousins have posted family trees, and in that case it will still depend on the accuracy of those trees. If you do test and find that you didn’t make a lot of progress, we’d love to help. There’s still a lot that research can discover that DNA testing is not able to prove or find. We also help many clients understand the results of a DNA test and make progress from there.
i did my dna test and my paternal line is I2A1* what do you know of this particular haplogroup?
Hi.. Google search.. There are charts.
Hi how did you find your paternal line?
The Madagascar is very interesting. Sounds like a less common but unique and interesting find.
I love this article explains it all nicely. I was googling to find what the meaning is behind my dads R1b Haplogroup is. Fascinating stuff and his maternal Haplogroup is L0a1b1a do you know which Africans primarily have this one? Mines is actually the same as my dads but I’m L0a1b1. Thanks for any insight.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hi Kim! We could definitely help you discover which tribes most commonly have this haplogroup and would recommend an Intro research project to get started. If you’d like to learn more about ordering a project with us, contact us directly at [email protected].
I am so happy that I had this email at a time when I needed DNA explained so that I would get a clear understanding. However I still have questions but not as many now. I just got the 23andMe results back. And boy was I puzzled. I joined the Gedmatch and got lost. I understand that my dad haplogroup is E1b1a7a and my mom is L2a1a2?. But what is my brothers Autosomal?
I think we maybe related.
my halogroup is also L2a1a2!
Do y dna test go according to migration or Indigenous. I took a DNA test on the map it showed Sudan/Egypt Turn/Armenia Angola/Congo Ukraine/Russia my Haplogroup is E1b1a7a
Amber Brown says
The Y-chromosome is only carried by males and is inherited in a line of direct paternal descent. A male receives his Y-chromosome from his father who inherited it from his father, and on and on. Occasional mutations help to distinguish different Y-chromosome lineages. Because surnames are often inherited in a similar pattern in many cultures, two individuals with the same surname and similar Y-chromosome signatures share a common direct line paternal ancestor. Check out our blog post on Exploring Ethnicity with DNA for more information on this subject.
W Looney says
This article was nicely written. African Americans have know for years and years of their families history. No one believed them. These and other stories have been pass down for generations. There are documents that were not destroyed that have told the stories of their lives. However, it took a little test like DNA to prove the relationship of families. There are some who do not believe it, but the DNA speak for itself. African Americans come in all different colors, from the whites white to the blackest black so you know that this race is mixed. If only the world can accept this fact and move on.
Great article, I am always excited to read about Black genealogy or people of color finding love ones. I have been trying to research information of my paternal grandfather, It seems I am running into a wall not knowing which way to turn. I am really at a lost of what I should do next because I have no leads or no one who could tell me anything about him because he was very secretive about his pass or why he left home. He never mention or talk about his life when he was a child. I was told he left his home in South Carolina when he was a young teenager and never went back. I did my DNA however it is still hard because I don’t recognize any of the last names to put anything together..I need help!
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
We completely understand, Mary. This research can be difficult and time consuming–but not impossible! If you would like research assistance, you may request a quote by completing this form. We look forwarding to helping you!
This was a very interesting article. However I do have a sticking point with your wording. Slave owners did not father children with their slaves, they raped them. It would be great for you to use accurate terminology here as you have done elsewhere in your article.
Second Wind says
Thanks, we all need to point this out!
Lyn Pierce says
Greetings. I am 60% African continent, 39% European and Ashkenazi and 1.3% SW Asian/Native American. My halogroup is H14a which I found very surprising.
If my halogroup is passed from mother to mother, how can I trace my past african ancestry? Why do I have a euro-halogroup? What does this all mean, I just don’t understand how I can use this information to help me trace my family, better yet how to use it to search for clues to extend my family tree.
Please help and thank you so much for any guidance you can give. ~Lyn
DNA is revealing and can be very surprising. After hearing from my husband of thirty-five years that he was African American with a large percentage of Native American, it was shocking to find out that he was about 47.5 percent European and 48 percent African. He and his family are from West Virginia. At one point he had considered the possibility of joining a Native American tribe. It was pretty hilarious. I on the other hand am African American with 24 percent European and twelve percent Native American, information no one had ever told us.
I have yet to see African Americans with Indigenous haplogroups. It is either African or European.
I’d like to see the study and percentage because you did not mention it in the article.
You will find more Afro-indigeous in the Caribbean and lesser amount in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico. In the US, for instance, most African Americans will find maybe 1% if any indigenous DNA.
I think we need to be careful and not promote Indigenous erasure.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hi Jack! Admittedly, as you mentioned in your comment, the Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups for African American individuals are most often African or European rather than Native American. However, in our experience working with many clients, we have sometimes come across African American individuals who have mitochondrial DNA haplogroups associated with Native American populations. Since we have not compiled that data as part of a larger study, we can’t say exactly what percentage of the test results we have reviewed for African American individuals include Native American haplogroups. Even so, we do occasionally see these results.