Out of Africa

By Susan Wenner Premium

What’s new in discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history.

Out of Africa

Talk about a long pedigree chart: Reading human chromosomes like history books, genetic scientists are discovering that modern Europeans — and possibly other populations — are descended from a few hundred Africans who left their homeland 25,000 years ago, according to the Associated Press. These findings were reported this spring at the conference of the Human Genome Organization. They contradict earlier theories that modern humans evolved in Africa, Europe and Asia simultaneously from multiple early humans.

Also, the London Times reported a new study revealing that one in every 100 “white” Britons is directly descended from an African or Asian. Geneticist Bryan Sykes led the DNA study of 10,000 people, and discovered that “many who believed their ancestry to be completely British were actually far more diverse.” The DNA originates in Africans brought to Britain as soldiers and slaves by the Romans, Sykes told the Times. Meanwhile, he’s also finding evidence that Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland were once members of the same tribe.

Portrait of a Continent

As geneticists uncover more evidence that the human race began in Africa thousands of years ago, a new PBS television series about the continent’s history, culture and environment may appeal to a much wider audience than just African-Americans. “Africa” is an eight-part documentary series in which individuals and families tell their stories by talking about the places they live. Jennifer Law-son, the series’ creator, wanted to “create a much more intimate portrait of Africa” than the typical TV news coverage of famine, war and tragedy, she says, “as if I could take you along on a journey to meet ordinary people.”

Though “Africa” spans the continent’s history from the dawn of humanity to the present, the series mostly focuses on “people’s lives today,” Lawson says. It’s meant not only to serve as a source of pride for African-Americans, but also to demonstrate our commonality as human beings. Lawson never had the time to pursue her own family history, but sensed a connection to her ancestors while filming on location: “The people were so welcoming, I felt that (not knowing my genealogy) didn’t matter. We were sharing human experience.”

“Africa” will air on most PBS stations Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern time from Sept. 9 to Oct. 28. Along with the TV series, look for a companion book, Web site <>, video, DVD and exhibit of west African art in National Geographic Explorer’s Hall in Washington, DC.


From the October 2001 Family Tree Magazine