Over the past decade the availability of commercial gene sequencing technics that provide information on the approximate geographic sources of our genes have increased significantly. These products are offered by companies like ancestry.com, National Geographic and 23andMe to name a few of the many businesses in that market. The field is rapidly evolving and is dependent on the availability of software Systems that provide efficient analysis of big data as well as the availability of data on people from across the various geographic regions.
The sequence analysis offers many different types of information to consumers which include; disease risk and susceptibilities, drug susceptibility testing, paternity and ancestry determination etc. For this post I would like to talk about the social and cultural implications of the ancestry determination using these products with a focus on US populations with a special emphasis on African ancestry.
Using this technology many Americans have been able to determine their ancestry. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey had her DNA analyzed through a PBS show African American Lives. She learned that her DNA had three exact matches with the Kpelle people, who lived in West Africa in what is now Liberia, Guinea and parts of Cote d’ivoire; the Bamileke people in Cameroon; and a Bantu-speaking tribe in Zambia. For Oprah this cannot be a surprise being African American born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, most US blacks having roots from West Africa.
For a few people though the DNA ancestry turned up a few surprises. White supremacist leader Craig Cobb was really surprised when on a TV show, “The Trish Goddard Show” in 2013 his DNA test showed he had 14% Sub-Saharan African DNA and 86% European ancestry. The white supremacist leader was in the process of creating a whites only community in North Dakota unfortunately he may not really qualify to live in his own Whitopia. He is known to have said oil and water doesn’t mix, suggesting that the races are different and must remain so. Well, as expected Craig denied his scientifically proven 14% Sub-Saharan African DNA and still proclaims he is 100% pure bred. I wonder what that means? Craig, has since fled from Leith, North Dakota after his plans drew press attention.
One White Michigan native who found out she had 8% African ancestry responded quite differently. After this discovery she did some investigation and realized her grandfather who had moved from Georgia to Michigan had relatives in Macon Georgia who self identified as African American. Her grandfather had married a white woman when he moved to Michigan from Georgia and obviously never revealed to anyone he had African ancestry. She went ahead and developed a new relationship with her African American Family in Georgia.
Having family lineage on my mother’s side that can be traced to slaves who worked their way out of slavery and returned to West Africa from Salvador in Brazil I had suspected I may have some Native American ancestry. How else could I explain my strong affinity to Native American Culture. My results put my ancestry as 82% West African (Yoruba), 12% Central African and 6% Southern African. No surprises there, my tribal group the Ga Adangbe in Ghana were said to have originated from Ile Ife in Yorubaland based on oral tradition. The surprising piece was my 0.6% Neanderthal ancestry. This was low but high for a person of Sub-Sharan African ancestry, since Neanderthal mixing occurred as modern man migrated into Eurasia from the African continent. My 0.6% Neanderthal ancestry, which tends to range from 1.1-2.3% among most non-Africans may support mixing with other groups possibly from my mother’s origins from the slave populations of the Portuguese colonies in Salvador, Brazil.
Whilst this new tool is bringing out interesting issues in the world today, more and more people are becoming aware of the illusory nature of racial differences. The question that one may ask is; “what really defines race?”; is it a biological entity or a social construct?
This is a question that I would love to pose to Craig Cobb, surely he must have a very clear definition for admitting residents into his planned Whitopia in Leith, North Dakota.
Dr. Leonard Sowah is an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland
Feature image – Picture of Michael Jackson, before and after – Photoshop Surgeon – www.photoshopsurgeon.net
Craig Cobb photo; courtesy of Afrikan News and History – https://www.reunionblackfamily.com
Oprah photo: courtesy of the Dr. Roshawnna Novellus aka “The Wealthy Yogi”