Ryan Taylor DNA might offer surprises
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By Ryan Taylor

Technology is amazing. You look away for a moment and it's taken off in a new direction.

DNA testing, which uses the basic building-blocks in our bodies to describe where we came from, has moved from being remote and exotic to everyday in the genealogical world. A recent article in the New York Times quoted family historian Georgia Bopp saying, "If we travel, we keep a DNA kit with us, just in case we meet someone who might help identify an ancient ancestor. You just never know."

DNA testing took on new dimensions when I saw an episode of the PBS television series African American Lives. Historian Henry Lewis Gates had selected a handful of famous Americans and began testing their DNA.

He did two tests, one on mitochondrial DNA which illuminates the maternal line, and one on Y-chromosome DNA, which does the paternal line. Since many African American families have a mixture of races in their background, he wanted to see if what people thought they were was reflected in their bloodstream.

Oprah Winfrey was sure she didn't have any white blood, but very much wanted to be part Native American. She got her wish, but was surprised to find that she also had some Asian background.

Of those tested, Gates himself got the biggest surprise: he was 50 per cent white and 50 per cent African. He had not expected the white part to be so large.

This kind of DNA testing is not new, although the tests are much more widely conducted than they have been. The second part of Gates' program moved into a very new area.

A third DNA test compared the individuals' DNA with thousands of tests done around the world. Where the DNA reflected certain similarities, little dots appeared on a map to signify a hit. When there were many dots, they became a circle.

If there were a significant number of dots or circles, it could indicate where the enslaved ancestors of the test group had originated in Africa. This is one of the biggest questions in any genealogist's mind: where did we come from? For African Americans, with their painful history, it is especially important.

It was fascinating to see each person react to the news. Whoopi Goldberg's dots were in Guinea-Bissau on the west coast of Africa, as were those of sociologist Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot. However, they came from different tribes.

Gates asked Lightfoot how she felt, and she replied, "Like getting on a plane to Africa tomorrow."

Quincy Jones' dots were in Cameroon, where members of his tribe were famous for being musicians. No surprise there! An eminent clergyman said he had a family tradition they came from the Ibos of Nigeria. "You are Ibo," said Gates.

But for Gates himself, there was a second shock. His dots were centered in Dublin and Paris -- far from Africa and his enslaved ancestors. His disappointment was visible. He joked that he might have to give up his teaching position as Professor of African American Studies at Harvard.

It was a good lesson -- there are no guarantees in taking DNA tests. You must be prepared for anything. But for some, such as Quincy Jones, the results affirm not only your background but your own accomplishments.

African American Lives continues on PBS; consult your local listings.

More information about DNA testing can be found on the internet or at your local library. Prices vary from $50 to $900. To find the names of laboratories where you can have your DNA examined, do a Google search on "DNA testing Canada."

Have your DNA tested now if you wish -- or wait a bit. Who knows what's coming? As Gates observed, "Our ability to travel into the past is in its infancy."

Posted February 22, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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