Recently I took a DNA test to determine where my ancestors come from in the world.
I was prompted in large part by the frequent questions I get from my friends and acquaintances in Austria about where I am from in Africa. It has always been a funny question to me. When people ask, I always reply, “Well. Actually, I am from the United States – Miami, Florida to be exact.” But the curious would insist, “Yes, but where in Africa, are you from?”
It may be difficult for people in the United States to comprehend, but many people in Europe, especially in a place as homogeneous as Austria, do not really understand that most black Americans are descendants of African slaves who were forcibly brought to the United States beginning in 1555 and who were the nation’s main laborers until the end of slavery in 1865. They don’t comprehend that most black people have no real idea of where in Africa they are from because they are so removed from the continent and have few clues as to which country was the home of their enslaved ancestors.
This inability to pinpoint one area of the world where we come from is an American phenomenon. We are truly a melting pot. What we self-identify as is almost certainly not the whole story.
Mexico City-based correspondent for sciencemag.org, Lizzie Wade, wrote in a December 2014 article for the website that almost no one in the U.S. can trace their ancestry back to just one place. Pointing to a study done by California-based genetic testing company 23andMe and published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, Wade notes that the vast majority of Africa-Americans, Latino-Americans and European Americans carry genetic genes outside of their self-described ethnicity.
According to the 23andMe study, “at least 3.5 per cent of European Americans carry African ancestry,” and some carry even a larger percentage depending on what state in the U.S. they come from. In addition, “the average African-American genome is 73.2 per cent African, 24 per cent European and 0.8 per cent Native American.”
My test puts me right along with the average African-American, with 76 per cent of my genetic mapping from Africa.
I actually felt anxious about getting my DNA results. When I was putting my saliva in the test tube for analysis by Ancestry.com, my sister teased that the results would be skewed because I had just eaten nacho chips and had a Mexican beer. But science does its thing, and here is what I learned: The 76 per cent of my DNA results from West Africa are broken down this way – 36 per cent from Cameroon/Congo, 19 per cent from Benin/Togo, 10 per cent from Ivory Coast/Ghana and 11 per cent from other regions.
I had secretly hoped that most of my DNA was from Ghana, a country where I lived for just over a year and where I feel a kindred spirit. The food is great and the Kente cloth beautiful.
But Cameroon? I know nothing about Cameroon and even less about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, except that there seems to always be political turmoil and instability in the latter.
The fact that the vast majority of my DNA is from West Africa, of course, makes sense. Most slaves came from West Africa and their mixing through the Middle Passage and on American plantations would mean that their offspring would have mixed DNA.
The DNA test showed that 11 per cent of my DNA had trace regions of Mali (seven per cent), Nigeria (five per cent), Senegal (three per cent), Africa southeastern Bantu (two per cent) and less than one per cent from Africa South-Central Hunter-gatherers. There regions are described as “trace regions,” which is defined by Ancestry.com this way: “These are regions where you seem to have just a trace amount of genetic ethnicity — there is only a small amount of evidence supporting the regions as part of your genetic ethnicity. Because both the estimated amount and the range of the estimate are small, it is possible that these regions appear by chance and are not actually part of your genetic ethnicity.”
Other trace regions in my DNA include: two per cent Native American and two per cent Asia Central (the part of the world that stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north).
Thirteen per cent of my DNA comes from Europe, with the bulk – ten per cent – from Great Britain. The other three per cent represent trace regions: Scandinavia (two per cent); Iberian Peninsula, the southwest corner of Europe that is divided among Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar (less than one per cent); and Europe West (less than one percent).
Many years ago during my first trip to Africa, I relayed to our tour guide in Senegal the experience of having white people always asking where I am from in Africa. The guide’s response was, “You are all of Africa. It does not matter that you do not know from which tribe or which country you come. You are blessed to call all of Africa your home.” I liked that.
Alison Bethel McKenzie firstname.lastname@example.org is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.