It was somewhat critical of the industry with regard to DNA tests for African origins. Reporter Ron Nixon said test results are often conflicting and confusing, and testing companies focus more on marketing than on communicating the limitations of ethnic DNA testing.
Nixon sent his own DNA to five companies for a mitochondrial (mt) DNA test and got strikingly different results: Reports named from two to 12 ethnic groups, for a total of 25 possibilities.
Nixon also interviewed representatives of several test companies, as well as Harvard historian and “African-American Lives” host Henry Louis Gates. Gates’ first mtDNA test in 2000 reported Egyptian roots; one from another company in 2005 concluded he had European, not Egyptian, ancestry.
One reason for mixed results is testing companies’ proprietary comparison databases of DNA profiles from modern people. Databases may be skewed toward particular ethnic groups and not represent other groups.
Furthermore, people have been moving around Africa for eons. Your DNA could match someone who lives in a particular area today, but whose ancestors came from elsewhere.
Another issue is that there’s still so much to learn. In our November 2007 Family Tree Magazine African-American research guide, Roots Project director Bruce Jackson, PhD, said “We have a poor understanding of the genetics of African groups … Identical genetic markers or signatures (called haplotypes) are found among different African ethnic groups for reasons that are not clear.”
Jackson went on to note scientists have studied only 1 percent of African ethnic groups, which doesn’t even include all those who were sources of the slave trade to North America.
If that’s not in your budget, do this: Research “on paper” as much as you can before turning to DNA. More African-American resources are out there than many people realize. (See our online toolkit and updates on this blog for tips.)
Then decide what you want DNA testing to tell you and carefully research your options to pick the best test. Make sure you understand the limitations of DNA testing: As you see here, results can be inconclusive, and you don’t learn where specific ancestors came from. If you don’t understand your results, ask your testing company for help and consult sources such as Trace Your Roots with DNA by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner (Rodale, $16.95).
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